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Tobacco Control Plan

Volume 825: debated on Wednesday 23 November 2022


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government when they intend to publish their Tobacco Control Plan; and whether it is still their intention that England shall be smoke-free by 2030.

Following the publication of the Khan review into smoke-free policies, we are taking stock of whether a fresh tobacco control plan is the best way to respond to its independent recommendations. The Government remain fully committed to the ambition of a smoke-free England by 2030, and we will provide an update on our plans to meet that target in due course.

My Lords, I think this is the first time the Minister has answered a Question about tobacco control; I welcome him to this debate. He will know that this House has led the way in putting forward and implementing measures that have led to a significant drop in smoking levels, certainly since 2002. There is cross-party consensus that we should go on in this way.

The Minister’s predecessor, the noble Lord, Lord Kamall —I am pleased to see him in his place—is on the record in both March and April as saying not only that the Government are committed to a smoke-free 2030, as confirmed by the Minister this afternoon, but that the new tobacco plan will be published this year. Does the Minister accept that, to achieve the smoke-free target and reduce the appalling inequalities in life expectancy caused by smoking, it will be necessary to implement the recommendations in Javed Khan’s independent review, particularly those based on the “polluter pays” principle?

First, I thank the noble Lord for all his work to reduce smoking; I am grateful for it every time I walk into a smoke-free environment in the evening. As he said, a cross-party approach has achieved many great things. As the noble Lord knows, there are some quite radical things in the Khan review, such as increasing the smoking age every year, which would in effect ban smoking altogether. There are many pros and cons to the prohibition argument, but it is something we take very seriously and we will publish our response. I assure noble Lords that we are going to tackle this issue.

My Lords, does my noble friend recall that in the former coalition Government, we made considerable progress in reducing smoking in this country, not least by focusing on the level of initiation of smoking among young people? We banned vending machines, for example. Will the Government consider raising from 18 the age at which young people can buy cigarettes?

I agree with my noble friend. The key age group to attack, so to speak, is 16 to 18-year-olds, which is often when the smoking habit begins. We must look seriously at every step we can take to reduce smoking in that age group. I am also aware that 18 is the age of consent, of being able to do lots of things, and changing that for smoking would obviously be quite a radical step, but everything is on the table as we review the best way forward.

My Lords, the Health Foundation recently published figures showing that the budgets for tobacco control and smoking cessation have been cut in real terms by 41%. Is not part of the answer to funding treatment for addiction to tobacco, alcohol and gambling the extension of the “polluter pays” principle? What is the argument against a levy on the very large profits of the tobacco companies, in order to pay towards helping their customers who want to quit?

There are a number of ways we can tackle this, price, obviously, being one of the main ways, along with taxation. The noble Lord will be aware that we increase the tax by 2% every year, and cigarettes prices here are now the highest in Europe. We are still providing funding of £73 million per year to help 100,000 people stop smoking. But it is not always money that counts. Anti-smoking campaigns, branding restrictions and taxation are all other elements which are proving successful.

My Lords, have His Majesty’s Government estimated the loss to the Treasury if England became smoke-free?

I am not aware of those figures, but the general feeling is that the savings to the health system would far outweigh them. I would always err in favour of doing everything we can to reduce smoking, whatever the impact on the tax we raise, because the savings on the health side are far, far greater.

My Lords, despite the Government pledging to explore additional measures to clamp down on the sale of e-cigarettes to under-18s, no plan has yet materialised, while vaping among 11 to 18 year-olds has more than doubled. What assessment have the Government made of this alarming trend, and what action is being considered to keep children and young people away from this gateway to a smoking habit?

This is a difficult area. On the one hand, I think we all agree that vaping is much better than smoking, so we are trying to get the message out to people to stop smoking and use vaping if need be. At the same time, we do not want vaping to be a gateway, as she says. Giving those mixed messages is never an easy thing to do, which is why we must consider as part of the Khan review the best way to get that message out. The recent Cochrane review shows that vaping is as safe as all other methods of stopping smoking, such as patches, so it should be our key way of stopping smoking.

My Lords, as much as I enjoy my non-political friendship with the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, I totally disagree with the premise behind his Question. Why should Big Brother tell me what I can and cannot do in respect of something I have been doing for 67 years?

I am not sure whether that question is for me, but I will try my best. As ever on these things, there is a carrot and a stick. Cross-party, we have introduced carrot measures—the anti-smoking campaigns—and stick measures such as pricing and restrictions. That has worked very well to date. We have halved the smoking rate over the last 15 years, and we must continue to work on carrot-and-stick measures to reduce it further.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that the tobacco industry is very adept at getting round regulations. In 1986, John Home Robertson’s Bill made illegal the use of tobacco pouches that people put in their mouths as substitutes. I understand that synthetic nicotine pouches are now being used to get round that law, so what are the Government doing to stop this?

I will need to write to the noble Lord on that. I am aware that different methods exist, but I think we are all united on the need to do everything we can to prevent any circumvention.

Is not any plan meaningless when at least a third of the market is supplied by illegal imports? His Majesty’s Government appear not to have done anything to stop this, and it is the young people in our country who are smoking the cheap, illegally imported cigarettes.

We are working very hard with HMRC on this. I think we can all agree that one thing that Brexit was good on was restricting the number of cigarettes that people can bring in legally from other parts of Europe.

The Government also lose a lot of income through illegal importation. If the Government are working very hard indeed to prevent it, can the noble Lord please spell out what they are doing? As I understand it, the number of staff involved at the ports is being cut.