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Tobacco: Packaging

Volume 749: debated on Thursday 28 November 2013


My Lords, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement an Answer given earlier today by my honourable friend the Minister for Public Health on the subject of standardised tobacco packaging. The Answer is as follows.

“In accordance with the notice I gave to the House yesterday afternoon, I have this morning made a Written Statement to this House announcing that Sir Cyril Chantler will carry out an independent review of the evidence for the impact of standardised tobacco packaging on health. Tobacco use, especially among children, remains one of our most significant public health challenges. Each year in England more than 300,000 children under the age of 16 try smoking for the first time. Most adults who smoke started before 18 years of age. As a result, we must do all we can to stop young people taking up smoking in the first place if we are to reduce smoking rates.

We have listened to the strong views expressed on all sides of this House, including when we debated standardised packaging in the Back-Bench business debate earlier this month. Many Members have told me that the evidence base for standardised packaging continues to grow and have urged the Government to take action. As a result, I believe that the time is right to seek an independent view on whether the introduction of standardised packaging is likely to have an effect on public health. In particular, I want to know about the likely impact on young people.

I have asked Sir Cyril to undertake a focused review, reporting in March next year. It will be entirely independent, with an independent secretariat. He is free to draw evidence from whatever source he considers necessary and appropriate. It will be up to Sir Cyril to determine how he undertakes the review, and he will set this out in more detail in due course. As this House will know, Sir Cyril has confirmed that he has no links with the tobacco industry. The review is not a public consultation. The Government ran a full public consultation in 2012, and these responses will be available for the review. To maximise transparency, the department will also publish the substantive responses received as soon as possible. The Government will also take advantage of the opportunity offered by the Children and Families Bill and will table a government amendment to provide a regulation-making power. If the Government decide to proceed, this will allow the introduction of standardised tobacco packaging without delay.

This Government have been consistent in their desire to have an evidence-based approach to public health. We will introduce standardised tobacco packaging if, following the review and consideration of the wider issues raised, we are satisfied that there are sufficient grounds to proceed”.

My Lords, that concludes the Answer.

My Lords, I refer noble Lords to my health interests in the register. I am very grateful to the noble Earl for coming to the House and I am pleased that the Government have changed their position. We have seen plenty of U-turns in the past three years and this is a major one, undoubtedly caused by the Government’s fear of defeat in your Lordships’ House.

However, why another review? Why must we wait until 2015 before implementation? I have enormous respect for Sir Cyril, but the Government have already had a review. The evidence in that review was clear for all to see. Does the noble Earl agree that it found that standardised packaging would make cigarettes less attractive to young people? Did it not find that such packaging made health warnings more effective? And did it not refute the utter falsehood that some brands are safer than others?

Does the noble Earl accept that all royal colleges and health experts are united behind the case for standardised packaging? Is it not the case that if the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill goes through in its current form, it would prevent charities such as Cancer Research UK ever raising issues like this in an election year?

Finally, the noble Earl will be aware of an amendment laid by my noble friends Lady Smith, Lord Rosser and Lord Beecham to ban proxy purchasing of tobacco products on behalf of children which will be debated in your Lordships’ House on Monday. Will the Government accept that amendment?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his welcome for this announcement. I do not accept that this is a U-turn. We said in July that we would keep the policy under active review, which is exactly what we have done. I cannot answer for any cynical attitudes on the Benches opposite, but that is the truth. More crucially, since then, the academics, led by the University of Stirling, who carried out the systematic review of the evidence on standardised packaging that was published alongside the 2012 consultation have updated their work. Their original report covered 37 peer-reviewed studies and the update considers an additional 17. We believe that that evidence merits full scrutiny.

The noble Lord suggested that the evidence is already clear so we should just go ahead and legislate. The views that emerged from the consultation were highly polarised. We have always been clear about the need for as robust an evidence base as is possible. We have reached the decision to commission this rapid review from Sir Cyril Chantler so that we have as robust an evidence base as possible.

On proxy purchasing, I think we can all agree that people buying tobacco on behalf of children and young people is wrong, and I want to acknowledge the role played by retailers in ensuring that legitimate tobacco products are sold in accordance with the law. However, a new offence of proxy purchasing would not necessarily tackle the wider problems of supply. We will obviously consider carefully the arguments put forward, but, at the moment, we are not convinced that creating a new offence is the right way forward.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a fellow of several medical royal colleges, the Academy of Medical Sciences and the Royal Society of Edinburgh, which have all previously backed, and continue to back, the argument that legislation should be brought forward to make cigarette packaging plain. I have spoken on many occasions in relevant debates under both this Government and the previous one and have tabled amendments to bring in legislation for the plain packaging of cigarettes. I have done so on the basis that the evidence is conclusive, as shown by both the British Heart Foundation and Cancer Research UK, that glamorised packaging is used by the industry to recruit young, new smokers. Now we have to wait until the evidence is produced by Sir Cyril Chantler. Disappointed though I am that we cannot legislate now, I can afford to wait a few months because I know that Sir Cyril Chantler, who is a friend, is a man of principle and will look at the evidence as it is. However, once that evidence is presented, what is the timeline for the Government to introduce legislation for plain packaging?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, who has indeed been a consistent champion for plain packaging over the years. I also appreciate his endorsement of the choice of Sir Cyril Chantler to lead this review. Noble Lords will know that Sir Cyril has a very distinguished record as an academic and paediatrician. As regards the timeline, I cannot be definite at this stage. All I can say is that, should the Government decide to lay regulations in the light of Sir Cyril’s recommendations, we believe that, taking into account a period of consultation and the statutory provisions surrounding European law, we would be able to introduce the regulations within a reasonable time.

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that in Australia plain packaging has been very effective? They say that that is, above all, because it is no longer “cool” for young people to smoke. The noble Earl mentioned age as being effective, and that is very relevant.

It most certainly is relevant, which is why we are taking the legislative opportunity in the Children and Families Bill to drive home that very point. My noble friend is right.

My Lords, I congratulate those in your Lordships’ House on their persistence in keeping this issue before the Government, including my noble friend Lady Tyler of Enfield. I also congratulate the Government on their determination to base policy on evidence. However, if the Government, in the fullness of time, use their regulatory power to introduce standardised packaging, will they keep a watching brief on the tobacco companies? In the past, whatever procedures we have brought in, they have been extremely clever in finding ways round them to lure young people into starting smoking. Therefore, will the Government watch the situation very carefully and try to make sure that the tobacco companies do not get round standardised packaging, thus continuing to attract young people to a habit that will kill them?

My noble friend makes a very important point. She is, of course, right that the tobacco companies protect their commercial position with great vigour. We will indeed keep an exceedingly close eye on the actions of the tobacco industry and, should we decide to introduce regulations, we will do all we can to ensure that they are watertight.

My noble friend should be congratulated on his leadership in taking forward this proposal on plain packaging. He will be aware that I have introduced a Bill on banning smoking in cars where children are present. I recognise the difficulties that that presents for the Government, but after this three-month period of consultation, if the recommendations of Sir Cyril Chantler, who, I agree, is a very highly respected clinician, are accepted by the Government and legislation is introduced, I hope that that will give an impetus to the Government to think again about the importance of banning smoking in cars where children are present.

I pay tribute to my noble friend for his championing of this cause. I am sure that the main reason people smoke in cars is that they do not understand how harmful second-hand smoke can be for children. Of course we would like to see smoking in cars carrying children eradicated entirely but, at present, we are not convinced that legislation presents the most effective or proportionate approach. Rather than create new offences, we prefer to promote and encourage positive behaviour change, and there is emerging evidence that we are succeeding on that score.

My Lords, is there any evidence that has not been published and examined in great detail that we have to wait for?

My Lords, it is clear from the debates in the other place and from our debates in Committee on the Children and Families Bill, that there is emerging evidence that needs to be considered. That evidence has emerged since the consultation. I am not in a position to make a judgment on that. I think Sir Cyril Chantler is the best person to do it.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a member of the board of UCL Partners, currently chaired by Sir Cyril Chantler, and I congratulate Her Majesty’s Government on the excellent choice of Sir Cyril to lead this important review. Can the noble Earl confirm that Sir Cyril will be completely free to define both the methodology that he will apply for the review and the question that he will address?

My Lords, this will be an independent review with advice from the Secretary of State contained in a report. An independent secretariat will be appointed by the chair, who will set out the method of how he will conduct the review in more detail in due course. The secretariat will be wholly accountable to the chair and it will be for the chair to guide and task the secretariat in its work as he sees fit.