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Health: Passive Smoking

Volume 722: debated on Tuesday 30 November 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the report by the World Health Organisation (WHO) that passive smoking annually kills 600,000 people worldwide, and to the recommendation that the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control be immediately enforced.

My Lords, the report from the World Health Organisation sets out the significant harms to health from exposure to second-hand smoke. The United Kingdom is a strong supporter of the FCTC and has worked hard to implement it since ratification of the treaty in 2004. Today, we exceed our treaty obligations in this area through the effective and popular smoke-free legislation. Tackling tobacco will be a key element in the Government’s new public health White Paper.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that very positive and welcome reply, which is particularly interesting in view of the interview given by the Secretary of State, Mr Andrew Lansley, on the “Today” programme this morning, in which he had some interesting things to say about packaging. Would the Minister comment on that? Does he agree with Mr Lansley’s assertion that “the visibility of cigarettes … constantly tends to reinforce smoking, but it also leads to initiation of smoking amongst young people”? Can he confirm that it is necessary for the United Kingdom, in order to comply with Article 13 of the framework convention, to proceed with restrictions on tobacco display and the banning of vending machines?

My Lords, the noble Lord is correct that plain packaging is an idea that we are considering, which would require tobacco products to have standardised plain packaging so that only basic information and health and picture warnings were visible. The Government are going to look at whether the plain packaging of tobacco products could be an effective way to reduce the number of young people who take up smoking and to help those who are trying to quit, but the decision will depend on the strength of the evidence, which we are going to have to look at.

On tobacco displays, the Government are currently considering options around the display of tobacco in shops. We recognise the need to take action both to reduce tobacco consumption and to reduce burdens on businesses. No decisions have yet been made on that.

The noble Lord will know that the issue of vending machines is currently subject to a legal challenge. We await the judgment from the court before making any further announcements.

My Lords, we can speak only one at a time. I suggest that my noble friend Lord Alderdice speaks first and then my noble friend Lord Glentoran.

My Lords, on Her Majesty’s Government’s commitment after ratification in 2004 to produce a five-year implementation report, I note that the WHO website gives no indication that the report due on 16 March this year was in fact forwarded to the WHO. Will my noble friend confirm whether the report has been forwarded?

In addition, given the enormous amount of smuggled tobacco—accounting for some half of hand-rolled tobacco and 10 per cent of cigarette tobacco in the United Kingdom—what has happened to our commitment under Article 15 to deal with illicit tobacco and, indeed, to the protocol mentioned in the commitment in the Uruguay meeting of earlier this month to ensure that, by 2012, others will also fulfil their responsibilities?

In answer to my noble friend’s first question, yes, the report has been forwarded to the WHO.

On illicit trade, HMRC leads on tackling the availability of illicit tobacco and has carried out—as I am sure my noble friend knows—a great deal of activity to tackle that market through its overseas network of fiscal crime liaison officers, as well as through activity at the border and inland detection work. HMRC also works closely with local authority trading standards officers. Those efforts have led to a decline in the market share of illicit cigarettes from 21 per cent in 2000 to 11 per cent, according to the latest available figures. However, he is right that hand-rolling tobacco in particular remains a problem.

Does the Minister agree that the current packaging of cigarettes is used as a form of marketing by the tobacco industry?

My Lords, that is the very question that we want to look at. Of course, tobacco companies regard their brands as a form of marketing and they attach value to the intellectual property that they consider to be in those brands. However, the issue from a public health perspective is whether the design of a pack actually entices non-smokers to take up smoking or indeed deters smokers from giving up. That is the question that we will examine.

Is my noble friend aware that the oldest member of Surrey County Cricket Club last year claimed that his longevity was due to a combination of smoking fags and good sex?

Well, that was not his view.

Furthermore, in relation to intellectual property, which is what we are taking about with packaging, is it not a very brave Government—even a coalition Government—that interfere with international laws that are already on the statute book to protect intellectual property, which is basically what packaging is?

My Lords, of course my noble friend is right that there are legal issues inherent in this whole question, which we will look into very closely.

On his first point, it is always a pleasure to hear of someone who has lived a long time in good health despite smoking. However, I say to my noble friend that the Royal College of Physicians estimates that more than 300,000 primary care consultations are recorded each year across the UK for conditions in children due to exposure to second-hand smoke.

Given the risk to children that has just been highlighted of exposure to passive smoking, what action do the Government intend to take against smoking in cars—which is a very restricted space, particularly when the windows are closed—and also in schools or among young people generally, so that young people have the courage to challenge when somebody lights up in close vicinity?

My Lords, we have no plans to legislate further for banning smoking in cars. As she will know, when a car is used as a workplace smoking is illegal, but when a car is being used privately that is a different matter. We do not intend to legislate.

On messages in schools, we know that youngsters are concerned about parental smoking. In fact, the younger the child, the more concerned the child tends to be. Schools are encouraged to include advice on smoking in the PSHE curriculum.

My Lords, following the successful implementation of the smoking ban in all workplaces and public places in July 2007, which was opposed by many in the party opposite, will the Minister undertake—

I except the noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain, from that.

Will the Minister undertake to ensure that, under the proposals for GP commissioning, NHS smoking cessation services will continue to be effectively commissioned and funded and that nicotine products will continue to be prescribed?

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, is wrong. The Conservative Party did not oppose the second-hand smoke provisions. We did not oppose them in principle; we supported the Government. We opposed some of the detail, but that is a different thing.

On smoking cessation, there is no doubt that local stop-smoking services are effective and are available free of charge in communities across the country. Evidence shows that the most effective way of stopping smoking is with local stop-smoking services because smokers get behavioural support as well as effective medicines and treatments on the NHS.