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Tobacco: Control

Volume 737: debated on Tuesday 19 June 2012

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will meet representatives of non-governmental organisations, the tobacco industry and retailers to discuss tobacco control issues, publishing the minutes of such meetings, in line with both the requirements of Article 5.3 of the World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control and the practice of the European Commission and other member states.

My Lords, Health Ministers consider all meeting requests carefully. Article 5.3 of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control requires the Government to protect the development of public health policies from the vested and commercial interests of the tobacco industry. The tobacco industry is welcome to share its views on tobacco control issues with us in writing at any time.

My Lords, that is a depressing Answer. How is it possible that in a country that believes in freedom of speech, a highly regulated and legitimate industry employing thousands of people and providing millions of pounds of revenue for Her Majesty's Government can be treated quite so shabbily when the Government are developing new regulations affecting plain packaging, which affects intellectual property, and are involved in consumer safety? I ask my noble friend to think again and to receive representations. The Government may not want to agree with those representations, but surely it is the legitimate right of every elector and every employer in this country to make their representations in person to Her Majesty’s Government.

My Lords, we welcome the views of tobacco companies, retailers and all those with an interest in tobacco-related policy. Ministers in other departments may have legitimate reasons to meet the tobacco industry—I understand that, from time to time, they do—but Health Ministers and Department of Health officials would have a good reason to meet tobacco companies only if a specific matter, as opposed to general issues to do with tobacco control, demanded that. We would have to think carefully whether there was a good reason.

My Lords, I refer the House to my health interests in the register, in particular as president of the Royal Society for Public Health. I ask the noble Earl to continue his efforts to keep those companies at some distance from him and the Department of Health. Will he confirm that it is the view of the Government, as it was of the previous Government, that the tobacco industry promotes a product that has been described by the WHO as being proven scientifically to be addictive and to cause disease and death, and that we should have very little to do with those companies?

My Lords, I can only agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, that tobacco is extremely damaging to public health. There is no safe level of smoking, and as a party to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, the UK has an obligation to take its undertakings very seriously—which means to develop public health policy free from influence from the vested commercial interests of a very powerful industry. However, that does not mean that we close our ears to what the tobacco industry may have to say: we are very happy to hear from it in writing. That promotes transparency, which I think assists everybody in a freedom of information context.

But is it not hypocritical of a Government—not only this one but previous Governments—to refuse to meet the tobacco industry, which is their tax-gatherer to the extent of £10.5 billion a year? If they had any honour and really believed that tobacco is such a bad commodity they would ban it. If they believe that, why do they not?

My Lords, across government we recognise the need for Ministers or officials from other government departments to meet the tobacco industry within the parameters set under the framework convention. There may be legitimate operational reasons why such meetings might be necessary—for example, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs sometimes meets the tobacco industry to discuss measures to reduce the illicit trade in tobacco. So it is not as if all government departments have closed their doors, but there is a very specific issue to do with Health Ministers and health officials.

My Lords, I declare my interest as an unpaid director of Action on Smoking and Health. Does the Minister recognise that any dealings he has with the tobacco industry will be with an industry that is responsible for the deaths of around 300 of its own consumers every day in this country alone, and that any claims that that industry makes must be treated with very great scepticism given its knowledge over many years of the connection between smoking and lung cancer and the addictive properties of nicotine—facts which it well knew but denied for many decades?

My Lords, my noble friend makes some very powerful points and he is right. Smoking is the biggest preventable cause of death in England. It causes more than 80,000 premature deaths every year. Tobacco use is a significant cause of health inequalities in the UK. One in two long-term smokers will die as a result of smoking. That demands that we take this issue very seriously indeed.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that his answers this afternoon will give a great deal of satisfaction to those of us who care about public health and the pernicious effect of the tobacco industry in its attempt to subvert it? As other questioners have said, this is a unique product: it is the only legal product that kills if it is used as the manufacturers intend. Does he share the views of his Secretary of State, who told the Times last month that he wanted the tobacco companies to have “no business” in the United Kingdom? If he does, he can be assured that he will certainly have the support of many Members of this House.

My Lords, if we are successful in our strategy to reduce smoking rates significantly, an inevitable consequence will be that, over time, less and less tobacco will be sold. It is smoking that we aim to reduce, which will have consequences for the sale of tobacco products. For the good of public health we are trying to arrive at a point where there is no smoking in this country, and that would mean no retail sales of smoking tobacco. Hence I fully support the remarks of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for acknowledging the harm and damage that smoking does. Can he assure the House that the Government are equally determined to ensure that smoking will not have an adverse effect on children and children’s health in the future?

The need to reduce and, we hope, eliminate the uptake of smoking by young people is one of our top priorities. I would like to thank my noble friend for his Private Member’s Bill, which will certainly enable this issue to benefit from a wide airing. We would all like to see smoking in cars with children eradicated—the health of people can be harmed by second-hand smoke. The key question for us at the moment is what is the most appropriate and workable way of protecting children from second-hand smoking. No doubt we will debate that matter when we come to my noble friend’s Bill.

Does the noble Earl ever speak to one of the best Ministers of Health that his party ever had—and, indeed, probably the best leader that they were never intelligent enough to elect—namely Kenneth Clarke, who they tell me used to get £150,000 a year from British American Tobacco? Perhaps I may just add that Rothmans was one of the best employers that I ever encountered. It was good with the employees, good with the trade unions and good with the community. It was just that its product happened to kill people—like arms dealers’.

I think that the noble Lord has answered his own question. Being a good employer is one thing, public health is another.