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Standardised Packaging (Tobacco Products)

Volume 591: debated on Wednesday 21 January 2015

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Wallace.)

There are now only a few weeks until Parliament dissolves, but tonight I want to urge the Government, even at this eleventh hour, to do something that can save hundreds, if not thousands, of people across the country from a premature death. They still just have the time to undertake one major reform that they promised long ago: the introduction of plain packaging for cigarettes. However, despite almost three years of consultations and reviews and clear evidence both at home and abroad to support regulation there has been a deafening silence for over eight months. Why is the Prime Minister prevaricating? I hope the Minister can answer that question this evening and show her resolve to be serious about this nation’s public health.

We have debated this issue many times but the need for tonight’s debate is simple: plain packaging works. Too many people suffer from diseases brought on by smoking and too many young people are still picking up the habit for the issue to be ignored until after the election.

Sadly, my own city, Glasgow, has one of the worst records for smoking-related premature deaths in the country. Of those who take up smoking, only about half will manage to stop before they die, and two thirds of current smokers started before they were 18 years old, so the early teenage years are the key period to hook people into the habit.

The cost to patients, their families and our NHS is still too high despite the considerable improvements in treatments and drugs over recent years. In Glasgow, according to the latest Scottish Public Health Observatory’s tobacco control profile there were over 1,900 deaths from lung cancer in 2012 alone and almost 47,000 smoking-attributable hospital admissions over that year. Almost 28% of the city’s population smokes against the Scottish national average of 23%. Even a small percentage drop in those figures would make a really big difference to a lot of people, save lives and alleviate the pressure on our health services.

Successive Governments over recent years have put in place a range of measures to assist public health. Duty on cigarettes has been routinely increased in Budgets above the prevailing rate of inflation and this has undoubtedly made a significant difference. However, the impact is clearly plateauing and there is evidence that in the poorest communities in particular the rise of the black market in cigarettes could be acting as a block on further smoking reduction.

Increasingly, non-economic measures need to be introduced to further limit the habit, the most obvious being the ban on smoking in public places. It was not without controversy when introduced, but with Scotland taking the lead it has transformed our communities, reducing overall smoking levels. It has been of benefit to workers and non-smokers alike, but if we are honest the smoking ban has also led to more people switching their drinking, and in turn smoking, habits to a domestic setting, rather than necessarily quitting.

Cessation services via GPs and local councils have become better organised and more comprehensive. The Local Government Association in England is producing a new report this weekend on cessation services, but has informed me that councils are committed to spending over £140 million in England on cessation services this year, and this is undoubtedly a sound investment.

The Government are to be commended for taking forward the legislation introduced by the previous Labour Government to prohibit the display of tobacco products at the point of sale, with all shops being subject to the ban by April this year. This, along with the ban on public advertising, has helped to change perspectives about the normality of smoking.

We know that children and young teenagers can be influenced by a complex range of factors and we must do more to protect them against the harm that smoking brings. Attractive colours and packaging have a strong influence on young people, and tobacco companies have not been slow to find other, indirect ways of promoting their products. In a presentation to an industry conference back in 2006, Imperial Tobacco’s then global brand director, Geoff Good, acknowledged that the tobacco advertising ban had

“effectively banned us from promoting all tobacco products”,

but noted that

“the marketing team have to become more creative…We therefore decided to look at pack design.”

In fact, the industry was even happy to admit this in its response to the Government’s consultation on the future of tobacco controls. Philip Morris stated in its response that

“packaging is an important means…of communicating to consumers about what brands are on sale and in particular the goodwill associated with our trademarks, indicating brand value and quality…placing trademarks on packaged goods is thus at the heart of commercial expression”.

I struggle to imagine what the good will of a cigarette might actually amount to, but there is no doubt that the industry has exerted enormous pressure to stop this move.

It is no coincidence that the colours and graphics used on these packs are designed to attract new and younger users, and research shows that this increased emphasis has had an effect. Between 2002 and 2006, there was an increase in the proportion of young people aware of new pack design from 11% in 2002 to 18% in 2006. As the Minister is well aware, the systematic review commissioned by her own Government of 37 different studies provided evidence of the impacts of plain packaging. Each of the 19 studies that examined perceptions of attractiveness found that standard plain packets were rated as less attractive than branded packs. The studies also showed that the awareness of health risks was higher with standard packaging. Younger respondents were more likely to perceive that standard packs would discourage the take-up of smoking. All those findings back up the case that such a change would have an impact on young teenagers who were tempted to smoke.

In Australia, where plain packaging legislation was introduced in 2012, smoking rates have fallen dramatically. Daily smoking levels are at an historic low of 12.8%, and the average number of cigarettes smoked is now just 96 per week, compared with 111 in 2010. Fewer young people in Australia are trying cigarettes, and those who do so start at a higher age than in the past. Opposition to plain packaging among the public has also fallen steeply since the legislation came into force.

Some have argued that such a move will open the doors to a massive black market, and I note that that allegation has been reported in The Daily Telegraph in the past week. However, the main driver of black markets is economic: the difference between the actual value of the good and the price set for the consumer. It should not be beyond the wit of the authorities to devise a form of unique marking to stem counterfeit products. As the Minister will be aware, Sir Cyril Chantler stated in his report last year that he had found

“no convincing evidence to suggest that standardised packaging would increase the illicit market”.

The Trading Standards Institute has helpfully advised me today that, having reviewed the proposed regulations, it understands that standardised packs will retain the same security features as those found on existing tobacco packaging. It is the institute’s professional view that standardised packs would provide no new challenges in terms of detecting illicit products.

We know from what has occurred in Australia that tobacco companies have been forceful in pursuing their opposition at every step of the way. On the day that the Australian Government passed their legislation, Philip Morris and a number of other producers immediately launched a lawsuit to challenge the law. That challenge was rejected by the Australian domestic courts in 2012, but Philip Morris was not prepared to give up. In addition to taking the domestic action, it rearranged its assets in order to become a Hong Kong investor and use the 1993 bilateral trade agreement between the two countries to initiate an investor dispute arbitration. That case is due to be heard next month in Singapore, behind closed doors.

In addition, the company helped to finance a separate World Trade Organisation action brought against Australia by five tobacco-producing states. Australia refused each of those countries’ first requests, as allowed under WTO rules, but Ukraine made a second request in September 2012, which led to the establishment and composition of a dispute panel. The panel was composed in May 2014, but no report has been adopted and this matter is still outstanding. Similar industry pressure in New Zealand led by British American Tobacco has led to a long postponement, despite the fact that the legislation was introduced in its Parliament more than a year ago.

Using the same ISDS dispute procedure that the UK Government are so keen to support in the current EU-US negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership—TTIP—Philip Morris is suing tiny Uruguay over its decision to increase the size of health warnings on cigarette packets from 50% of the cover to 80%. We now await the outcome of this David and Goliath struggle, but it does raise the question as to why our Government are not more questioning of the possible impact of investor-state dispute settlement clauses on our public health policy, given the lengths that the tobacco industry is clearly prepared to take.

We need the UK to be brave—to face up to the industry giants and act in the interests of the public we serve. The Minister will be aware that the Scottish Government have sensibly agreed that legislation should be brought in throughout the UK at the same time and have given their assent to regulations being brought in by this Government covering Scotland, too. I want her assurance tonight that she will act on this agreement to give the boost to public health that is so needed in my city.

Over the past few years there have been several well-supported public campaigns calling on MPs to act, and recent polling has shown that a majority of the public are in favour of this proposal.

The hon. Lady will be aware that a range of views may be held among Government Members, but may I assure her that within my party there is a strong body of opinion supporting what she is saying and joining her in urging the Government to take action?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his support tonight. This matter should, I hope, elicit cross-party support, because the health of our young people is a key issue that all of us should be deeply concerned about.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making a powerful speech tonight. May I take her back to an earlier point at the beginning of her speech and highlight the fact that if this measure is not introduced by the Government soon, it will be delayed until probably after the summer, as a result of which, indirectly, thousands of lives will be lost?

Yes. As I have said before, half those who take up smoking will not be able to stop, and we know that every week hundreds of teenagers across the UK take up the smoking habit. So every week that we delay has a direct health impact in our local communities.

The Minister’s own review, the Chantler review, concluded when it reported in early April last year that branded packaging plays an important role in encouraging young people to smoke and in consolidating the habit, irrespective of the intentions of the tobacco industry and that the body of evidence showed that plain packaging is very likely to lead to a modest but important reduction over time on the take-up and prevalence of smoking. The Minister is already on the public record as accepting that standardised packaging is

“very likely to have a positive impact on public health”—[Official Report, 3 April 2014; Vol. 578, c. 1018.]

and as wanting to proceed as swiftly as possible. I have no reason to doubt her intentions, but time is running out.

The Prime Minister must allow Parliament to vote on plain packaging regulations before the election. He must heed the advice of health professionals, 4,000 of whom signed an open letter to The Guardian demanding urgent action, and ignore the protestations of his Australian spin doctor Lynton Crosby, whose tobacco industry links are said to have scuppered the push for plain packaging in 2012 when the Government pushed the issue into the long grass. Too many people are needlessly dying prematurely because of smoking and too many young people are still being hooked.

This is a very important debate. As the chair of the all-party group on smoking and health, may I say to the hon. Lady that what we need to hear from the Minister tonight is that the Government write-around has started and that the regulations will be laid, so that we can have a vote?

The right hon. Gentleman is right about that, because these regulations, which need to be laid by the end of this month if they are to be approved in time by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments and the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. That is why we need to use the precious time that we have in this Parliament between now and the end of March to save lives and reduce the burden on the national health service. I hope the Prime Minister, his Government and the Minister who responds will listen to that call and start to act on behalf of everyone.

I draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin) for allowing me to make a brief contribution during her debate—doubly so, because she did not withdraw her permission when I told her that I was going to disagree with her. Similarly, I thank the Minister.

I speak as a lifelong non-smoker. That is my choice, and it is a choice open to everybody. Nobody is forced to smoke. The Government have already invested heavily in existing strategies: television adverts, which were extremely effective—particularly the one about not smoking in front of children in one’s car—street hoardings, newspapers and magazines, smoking cessation treatment free of charge in GP surgeries and pharmacies, and anti-smoking advice in schools. My own schools are very effective in giving citizenship classes warning about the health risks of smoking. There cannot be anyone in this country, young or old, who does not know about the health risks of tobacco. Nobody smokes in ignorance.

Plain packaging has the laudable purpose of deterring children from starting smoking and helping smokers who wish to quit, but there is no reliable evidence that plain packaging will influence smokers in general or children in particular. In Australia, where plain packaging was introduced in 2012, both youth smoking and sales of illicit tobacco increased in the following year. There are many complex social reasons that lead to youth smoking, but packaging is not one of those factors. Currently 3% of under-15s smoke in the United Kingdom—the lowest percentage in a generation. I have asked people who were buying cigarettes in my local newsagent whether plain packaging would influence their tobacco purchasing habits, and they find the idea laughable.

Standardised packaging would be bad for exports, bad for retailers, particularly small shops, bad for jobs in warehousing, distribution, marketing, design and packaging, and bad for the Treasury, but very good for criminals, making the illicit trade much easier. What would follow—bottles of wine with plain labels, or bars of chocolate in plain packages as we are controlled and someone else makes our decisions for us?

Let us try to be positive and sensible. Let us clamp down on illicit sales of smuggled cigarettes in our neighbourhoods, and enforce a new ban on purchasing tobacco for under-18s, as with alcohol. Let us support shopkeepers in their role as gatekeepers to age-restricted products, encourage “No ID, no sale” signs in shop windows, and enforce stiff penalties against retailers—

Order. I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Lady, but time is very short. I hope she will draw her remarks to a close because the Minister has a speech to make.

I am very aware of that, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Let us enforce stiff penalties against retailers caught selling cigarettes knowingly to children and let us not forget the responsibility of parents to know how much pocket money their children have to spend and what they spend it on. In short, the policy of plain packaging is well intentioned but misguided. It will do more harm than good. It will not work and I oppose it.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to respond to this important debate and I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin) on securing it.

As other Members have said, tobacco use remains one of our most significant public health challenges and reducing smoking rates is a key public health priority for this Government. The burden of smoking places enormous strain on the NHS and holds us back in the battle against cancer. This is why the Government have committed to and delivered on a comprehensive set of tobacco control measures, which include a ban on smoking in cars with children present, making it illegal for adults to buy tobacco products on behalf of children, outlawing displaying tobacco in shops and working to introduce age of sale requirements for e-cigarettes. Standardised packaging is part of this strategy and I am grateful for tonight’s opportunity to provide the House with an update on this policy.

It is important to acknowledge the enormous progress that has been made so far. Smoking rates in England are at their lowest level since records began. Today, around 18% of adults are smokers, down from around half of adults in the 1970s. Almost 2 million fewer people in England are smokers compared with a decade ago. Assuming that the downward trend of the past years continues, that equates to around 15,000 smoking-related deaths avoided during the course of this Parliament.

We know that most smokers start young, and we want our children to grow up free from the burden of disease that tobacco inflicts. The very good news is that the rates of regular smoking by children in England are also falling, with 8% of 15-year-olds smoking now compared with 15% in 2009, achieving the target set out in our tobacco control plan two years early. However, around 8 million people in England still smoke, so there is no room for complacency. The hon. Member for Glasgow North is right to draw attention to regional differences in smoking rates—including in her own area, where more than one in four people smokes. I think that she will agree with me that there is a concerning link between those rates and deprivation.

I wish to pick up on what the hon. Lady said about prevarication and delay. I have always been clear about the need to follow a robust process and ensure that all issues relevant to the introduction of standardised packaging are properly considered. That includes the implications for illicit trade, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Dame Angela Watkinson) mentioned, as well as the legal issues.

I am very sorry, but I have been left very short of time.

The challenges that the tobacco industry is likely to bring to the regulations have also been carefully considered. It is vital that all stakeholders are heard and all evidence is carefully considered and evaluated. Ministers must ensure that that is done as thoroughly as possible so that any decision taken is solidly based on the available evidence.

Over the past few weeks and months, the Department of Health has carefully considered all responses to the most recent consultation and taken into account all the information and evidence on the public health implications as well as the wider issues, including the legal ones. I commend my officials, who have worked tirelessly to provide me and my ministerial colleagues with essential and valuable advice with which to make a decision.

As the House has already heard, I asked Sir Cyril Chantler, an eminent paediatrician, to undertake an independent review of whether the introduction of standardised packaging is likely to have an effect on public health, in particular in relation to children. I would like to thank him again for delivering such a thorough report.

Sir Cyril’s report concludes that, if standardised packaging were introduced, it would very likely have a positive impact on public health and that the health benefits would include health benefits for children. Following the publication of his report, we also held a final short consultation in summer 2014, seeking new and additional information, relevant to the policy, that had arisen since the last consultation.

Earlier this month, the chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser, Professor Dame Sally Davies, provided me with her review of the evidence and also of the criticisms of the Chantler review that have been put forward by the tobacco industry. Dame Sally has made it clear that she

“does not believe there is evidence to show that the process or the conclusions of the Chantler review are flawed and there is now accumulating evidence to support the conclusions of the review.”

It is her view that the evidence does support the introduction of standardised packaging.

There have been particular concerns that standardised packaging would increase illicit trade. In his review, Sir Cyril addresses those concerns and concludes:

“I am not convinced by the tobacco industry’s argument that standardised packaging would increase the illicit market, especially in counterfeit cigarettes.”

Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has also undertaken a detailed assessment of the potential impact of standardised packaging on the illicit market. It concluded:

“We have seen no evidence to suggest the introduction of standardised packaging will have a significant impact on the overall size of the illicit market or prompt a step-change in the activity of organised crime groups.”

The assessment is expected to be published in full soon.

We are also giving careful consideration to any and all potential legal challenges that may be brought against the Government as a result of introducing standardised packaging. As the hon. Lady knows, litigation by the tobacco industry is always a risk when introducing tobacco control legislation.

The Government are committed to reducing the numbers of young people taking up smoking and to helping smokers who are trying to quit. Our comprehensive approach to tobacco control is working. Fewer people than ever now smoke and cancer survival rates are at record highs. However, we cannot be complacent. We all know the damage that smoking does to health. Tobacco causes over 80,000 deaths a year, and around 600 children in the UK start smoking every day, as the hon. Member for Glasgow North said in her opening remarks.

The Government are completely committed to protecting children from the harm that tobacco causes. That is why I am announcing today that we will be bringing forward legislation for standardised packaging before the end of this Parliament. A consultant respiratory physician told me last year that he is confident that the introduction of standardised packaging will end up saving more lives than he would be able to in his entire career.

I thank all the people who have campaigned for this policy and all those who have contributed to the consultations—the 2012 consultation and the 2014 consultation. I hope that the thousands of other clinicians who have written to me, and to colleagues, over the past weeks and months will welcome this important progress. I want to reassure the House that I will provide further details about the introduction of the policy in due course.

Legislation—even new laws on packaging—will not solve all the problems relating to tobacco. Effective tobacco control depends not just on Government action; local authorities also have a key role, which is why we gave local government responsibility for public health. It is best placed to take forward local plans, based on local circumstances. We see a wide variation between the levels of smoking in our nation—during pregnancy and among young people—and we see that the policy of local action has been vindicated. Local authorities, supported by Public Health England, can advise on effective local action and share experience of what works.

Standardised packaging has the potential for huge public health benefits, but we must not forget that other measures will also contribute to reducing smoking rates. I remind the hon. Member for Glasgow North that Sir Cyril Chantler’s report advises that any policy of standardised packaging must be seen in the round as part of a comprehensive policy of tobacco control measures, and that is how I see the potential for standardised packaging working in this country. Effective tobacco control depends on taking a multifaceted approach, and that is what we are doing.

Only this morning, I was speaking to a number of local government leaders and hearing their reflections, and I know that many local authorities as well as health charities have also addressed the Government on this subject. Legislation to end tobacco displays has already been implemented for large shops such as supermarkets, as I mentioned. All other shops selling tobacco, including corner shops, will need to end their displays of tobacco on 6 April. The display of tobacco products in shops can promote smoking by young people and undermine the resolve of adult smokers trying to quit—and we know how many adult smokers are trying to quit.

While I have the Floor, I can give the House an update on smoking in cars. We laid the regulations to end smoking in private vehicles carrying children on 17 December 2014. The regulations have been considered by the scrutiny Committees, and I expect that we shall have a date for the debate soon. The regulations make it an offence to smoke in a vehicle if a child is present, and for a driver to fail to stop someone smoking in such situations. They provide for the police to be able to enforce against these offences and, if approved by Parliament, the regulations will come into force on 1 October 2015—again, as part of a comprehensive tobacco control strategy. We will also continue social marketing work in this area, with Public Health England running campaigns to raise awareness of the health harms and of the new offences. It is not my desire that people should be fined as a result of ignorance, and I want to ensure that as many people as possible are aware of the new policy.

As I mentioned earlier, we have also introduced legislation to make it illegal for an adult to buy or attempt to buy tobacco for anyone under the age of 18. Through regulations we plan to extend the scope of this offence to cover e-cigarettes. The Department is currently consulting on those draft regulations to introduce age-of-sale requirements for electronic cigarettes, as we already have for tobacco, and that consultation will close on 28 January.

I thank colleagues who have attended the debate, many of whom have expressed strong views about this policy. All of those views have been extremely carefully considered. The hon. Member for Glasgow North referred to the desire to make UK-wide legislation. I can confirm that I will be speaking to my ministerial colleagues in the devolved Administrations and I hope they will follow us to make this a UK-wide measure.

We will bring the regulations before Parliament in this Parliament. Should Parliament support the measure, we will be bringing the prospect of this country’s first smoke-free generation one decisive step closer. I thank the House for its attention tonight and colleagues for all their input into this policy making. I commend the policy to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.