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Protection Of Children (Tobacco) Bill

Volume 475: debated on Monday 2 June 1986

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12.45 a.m.

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. This is a Bill with a limited objective, and that is to prevent the sale of tobacco products to children under 16. It is accepted knowledge that there is a causal relationship between lung cancer and smoking, and that that causal relationship extends to chronic bronchitis and emphysema and also to high blood pressure, coronary heart disease and narrowing of the blood vessels in the limbs. It is estimated that about 100,000 deaths annually are the result of cigarette smoking. In addition to the loss of life, there is the misery to the cigarette smokers who suffer prolonged ill-health and to their relatives, the loss of working time, the cost to the nation of the loss of human resources and also the direct cost to the National Health Service. Since the mortality and morbidity are related to cigarette smoking it is preventable and it is our duty to do everything possible to prevent it.

The campaign to reduce smoking has been having a beneficial effect. The knowledge of the dangers of smoking has eventually permeated to older people. Whereas 20 or 30 years ago about 75 per cent. of the male population smoked and about 50 per cent. of woman, now only about 34 per cent. of adult males smoke cigarettes and about 30 per cent. of women. It is, however, among the youngsters that we are failing. While we are getting adults to smoke less, youngsters seem to be smoking more.

A recent government survey showed that 11 to 16 year-olds in Great Britain are smoking between £70 million and £90 million of cigarettes each year and that, in spite of the reduction in smoking among adults, there has been no reduction in smoking among children since 1982. Among certain age groups (for example, 14 to 15 year-old girls) smoking actually appears to be on the increase. In 1984, 24 per cent. smoked, as compared with 15 per cent. in 1982. The same survey suggested that boys experimented with cigarettes at an earlier age than girls, but girls seem to catch up and possibly overtake the boys during their second school year.

Almost a quarter of regular smokers smoke 10 or more cigarettes a day. Pupils who were smokers were more likely to have siblings who smoked. Most pupils accepted that smoking is associated with health risks. However, about a third of all pupils thought that smoking was harmful only to those who smoked a lot. Older children were more likely to perceive benefits in smoking and less likely to accept the health risks than were younger children. That indicates that they already have the addicted habit and are finding excuses to justify it. But those youngsters are running the risk of developing high blood pressure very early in life, with consequential effects on their hearts and kidneys, and also the risk of bronchitis and lung cancer. They should be helped to avoid that disaster.

It is already unlawful to sell cigarettes to children under 16, but the Act contains a proviso which gives the seller a way out and seems to make prosecutions difficult. In 1984, when the government survey that I have mentioned was carried out—the year in which children under 16 spent between £70 million and £90 million on cigarettes—there were only 42 prosecutions in England and Wales. The Bill will remove the proviso and make it clear that selling cigarettes to someone who appears to be below 16 years of age is illegal and that action on the sale of cigarettes to children through vending machines is mandatory.

The Bill also tightens the definition of "tobacco products" and includes smokeless tobacco products, which are a new phenomenon in this country. The best known of those products is the Skoal Bandit. This is a new type of oral tobacco snuff which is manufactured in this country by United States Tobacco Incorporated. Skoal Bandits are tea-bag like sachets of moist tobacco intended to be placed between cheek and gum and sucked. They are flavoured and are like sweets. They contain the high level of 2.8mg of nicotine per sachet, which is more than any cigarette currently available on the United Kingdom market and the ingestion of that is obviously the purpose of the product.

Studies in the United States have linked oral tobacco with oral cancer. Skoal Bandits contain radioactive polonium, a known carcinogen. Medical evidence shows that extensive use of the product can cause cancer of the mouth, a disease which is unpleasant and extremely difficult to treat and which can be fatal. As nicotine is an addictive drug and, once it takes hold is extremely difficult to obtain release from, the risks are all too apparent.

The medical evidence was such as to prompt the chief medical officers of the DHSS, the Scottish Home and Health Department and the DHSS, Northern Ireland, to write to all doctors and dentists in the United Kingdom warning them of the possible health consequences of snuff dipping, which is what the practice is known as.

Skoal Bandits have been banned in the Irish Republic, the Isle of Man and New Zealand, and the United States of America has passed legislation which bans radio and television advertisements of the product and provides for a health warning to be given. The Japanese Government have refused permission for the manufacturers of tobacco sachets to open a factory in Japan. The Britisb Medical Association has been vociferous in its condemnation of the product. We want to see Skoal Bandits banned in this country also.

The Bill, which does not seek to ban the product, goes some way towards making it difficult for the manufacturers to sell this sweet-like product to children and thus get them addicted. The Bill was supported by the Government in the other place and was passed unanimously. I hope that it will be received with equal enthusiasm in your Lordships' House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—( Lord Pitt of Hampstead.)

12.52 a.m.

My Lords, I have the permission of my noble friend Lord Winstanley to quote him by saying that whereas with a few exceptions we cannot hope to stop people smoking, we can try to stop them starting to smoke. However, recently we have not been very successful at that, and that no doubt is the reason for the introduction of this modest Bill. We are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Pitt, for introducing it and for explaining it so lucidly.

At this hour, I do not want to devote more than a sentence or two to the three facets of the Bill. It must be right to put a stop to the errands run by small children to the tobacconist. The only possible effect upon a child must be that he says to himself, "What is it about this tobacco which mum and dad find so appealing and which they cannot leave alone? I shall have to try this experience for myself some time." I do not think that one could expect a child to take any other view. If this Bill will stop errands to tobacconists by children it will have done a little good in that respect.

We then come to the vending machines. If we meant business, there is no question but that we would ban cigarette vending machines from all places where children have access to them. But the Bill is too timid to go to that length. It very marginally improves the situation, albeit in an extremely unattractive way. It substitutes the opinion of Parliament for the discretion of the court. I do not find that attractive at all. I think that we ought to have faith in our courts and be pleased to give them their discretion. However, I think that the vending machine provision very marginally improves the scandalous state of affairs whereby children have access to these vending machines.

Finally, with regard to tobacco for oral use, the mouth is very susceptible to infection and disease. I remember years ago in a debate on smoking the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, of Harlow, saying that in those days pipe smoking was considered one of the least dangerous forms of smoking. But that used not to be so. In the days of clay pipes the stern of the pipe became hot and irritated the lip, and that led to cancer of the lip. If we can stop children taking tobacco in the form of sweets, and in the form of tea bags held in the mouth, then surely that is something that we must do our very utmost to ensure.

In three very small respects the Bill takes timid steps to improve this appalling scourge of cigarette smoking with which we are beset. For what it is worth, I hope that it will reach the statute book.

12.57 p.m.

My Lords, as a medical practitioner who does not always agree with the official line of the British Medical Association, I should like to support most fully this small but necessary Bill of my noble friend. On a point of information, I should like to explain that this curious name, Skoal Bandits, might appear to be extremely attractive to children. In school parlance now the word "wicked"—and a bandit is nothing if not wicked—means something new, exciting, and to be admired.

That is my speech, and I wish to put it down for the Guinness Book of Records as the shortest speech in your Lordships' House this year.

My Lords, nearly everyone today would think that we should discourage the young from taking up smoking both on medical and financial grounds. This Bill makes useful provisions for helping to do so. It is tacitly supported by a major tobacco company. Having said this, it must be realised that some people always seek some means of relaxing tensions, and tobacco is less obnoxious than some of the alternatives. If the noble Lord, Lord Pitt, wants to achieve a useful piece of legislation I would urge him to reject all amendments to widen the Bill which are based on opinions not shared by many of us. If he does not do this, the Bill brought forward at this time of year will fail, and that would be a pity.

This is not the time to raise the whole question of smoking. However, I should like to make two points in this connection. First, I should like to refer to the cost to the National Health Service of smoking-induced cancer. People have to die of something and usually require hospital treatment before doing so. If, as is alleged, they have shortened their lives by smoking, there will be less cost to the social services for pensions, old-age care, and so on. The argument on those grounds is therefore completely faulty, and it should not be put forward again.

My Lords, what about their friends and relations and the people who are dependent upon them, and the people who love them and who do not want to see them die before their time?

My Lords, I was only referring to one matter, and that was the cost of the National Health Service. I think that that is a faulty argument.

If older people want to continue to smoke, it is their affair; and if they accept the danger of a shortened life span, why not?—it may even be in the national interest. In this and other contexts I believe that the BMA and some other medical people should question their ethics. Surely what matters more than the continuance of life, is the quality of life. Pushed by the ambitions of the research workers and the lure of high technology, we are spending limited funds in prolonging life at all costs at the expense of those who urgently need operations and treatment to relieve pain and to be able to continue an effective life. I suggest that the medical profession may well take those matters into consideration.

1.2 a.m.

My Lords, I have used tremendous restraint in not responding to the statements made by the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth. I wish to make only two very brief points in supporting my noble friend and in congratulating him.

First, we are winning the battle against smoking among adults, but we are not winning the battle to discourage children from smoking and getting the habit at an early age. Part of the responsibility lies with parents. It is a fact that more children of parents who smoke, smoke themselves, and that those who start smoking under the age of 16 are more likely to sustain it into adulthood. Equally, a great deal of responsibility lies with tobacconists who ignore the present law.

Secondly, it was about 18 months ago that I raised on the Floor of the House the question of Skoal Bandits with the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington. The noble Baroness said that she was very worried about the matter and that the Government were watching it carefully. The consequence of their watching it carefully was that behind her back her colleagues approved a grant of £1 million to US Tobacco Intemationl to set up a manufacturing plant in East Kilbride to produce the damned things. I think that that was an appalling act and I want to see Skoal Bandits obliterated from this country. The Bill does not do that, but in so far as the Bill does what it does, I warmly welcome it. My Lords, I think that that speech is a record for me, too!

1.4 a.m.

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Pitt, for the lucid way he has introduced this Bill. As the noble Lord has so clearly highlighted the Bill's purpose, I too can be brief.

The Government welcome and support this measure. The use of tobacco, particularly by young people, is of great concern to us. We are actively engaged in discouraging smoking in a number of ways and are especially concerned that children do not take up the tobacco habit because of the enormous health risks involved. It is an alarming fact that over a third of boys and girls have taken up smoking by the time they reach the fifth form in school. On past evidence, many of them will persist in the habit when they grow up. The Government are intensifying efforts to reduce smoking rates among the young and I am sure from the contributions made this evening and on other occasions in your Lordships' House that they have the overwhelming support of your Lordships in this. However, we are concerned to discourage tobacco in its new as well as its old forms. Oral tobacco in its various forms has been available in this country for many years. However, until recently, it has not been widely promoted nor has there been any great tradition of its use in Britain. But it has caught on in other countries, where, most worrying of all, it seems to be very popular among the young. In the United States, for example, a national survey has shown that 16 per cent. of men aged under 21 are using smokeless tobacco products of one kind or another. So clearly there is a pressing need to prevent this pattern from being established here. In saying this, I realise that I am echoing what has been said by every noble Lord who has contributed to this evening's discussion, with one notable exception.

It is because the brand Skoal Bandits, about which a great deal has been said, has been the subject of a sustained promotional effort by the manufacturers that the Government have not only watched this matter carefully but taken urgent action to regulate its sale and marketing. Last year we reached a voluntary agreement with the manufacturers, United States Tobacco International Inc., intended primarily to protect young people. In the light of growing concern about the potential health risks of oral tobacco, the Government decided recently to reopen negotiations with the company with a view to strengthening the provisions of the voluntary agreement and bringing it closer into line with the recently concluded agreement on the advertising of cigarettes. As part of the discussions, the manufacturers have agreed to the inclusion of health warnings on their packs and advertising material, and to further restrictions designed to safeguard the young. Further details must await the outcome of our talks, but I hope your Lordships will feel that these measures will go some way towards meeting the understandable public anxiety that this product is available at all in this country.

The Bill before us today is concerned with restrictions to sales rather than promotion, and in seeking to provide greater protection for the young it accords with the Government's aims and will help to reinforce the steps we are taking. By extending the definition of the term "tobacco" to include products for oral or nasal use, the Bill encompasses such products as Skoal Bandits, thus remedying an obvious defect in the current law. In seeking to make it an offence to sell any tobacco product to under-16s under any circumstances it provides a long overdue clarification and simplification of the law, although existing legislation makes it illegal to sell cigarettes to children under 16.

I hope, and feel sure, that this Bill, which is intended to safeguard children from the appalling consequences of tobacco. will receive the support of the House. Tobacco used in any form can and does inflict illnesses and premature death. I am confident that the measures proposed in this Bill, although limited, are a valuable step towards the prevention of ill health in this country.

My Lords, I am grateful to all those who have taken part in the debate and to the Government for supporting this Bill. I beg to move that the Bill now be read a second time.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

House adjourned at eight minutes past one o'clock.