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Volume 835: debated on Thursday 25 January 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what progress they have made towards the ambition of creating a “smokefree” generation by 2030.

Smoking is responsible for around 80,000 deaths a year in the UK, costs our country £17 billion a year and puts a huge burden on the National Health Service. That is why we will shortly introduce the tobacco and vapes Bill to Parliament in the coming weeks, to create the first smoke-free generation and further crack down on youth vaping. The Bill will be informed by our recent consultation, which we will publish soon.

My Lords, all parties have agreed on the need to reduce the prevalence of smoking in this country to below 5% by 2030, so the Bill to prevent young people ever becoming smokers is vital. Does the Minister accept that we need to do more to help the over 6 million people in this country who are addicted smokers, most of whom are struggling to give up smoking and want to? They are damaging their health and that of others affected by smoking. Does he agree that allowing integrated care boards to make further cuts to tobacco dependence treatment budgets will not help us to achieve this target?

I thank the noble Lord. Actually, Khan recommended four major things to achieve that in his report Smokefree 2030. The first was to increase the anti-smoking spend that the noble Lord refers to. As part of this, we propose to increase that spend from £70 million to £140 million—so we are doing absolutely what the noble Lord suggests. The second was to increase the age of sale, which of course this legislation is all about. The third was to promote vaping to help quit smoking. Again, the legislation will do that. The fourth was to increase NHS prevention methods which, again, we will do from here. So it is very much a range of measures to stop people ever smoking but also to stop many who are currently smoking by helping them to quit.

Further to the Question from the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, the Government commissioned the independent Khan review, which concluded that the Government would miss their smoke-free target for England by several years unless an additional £125 million a year was spent on prevention. Given the pressure on public expenditure, the Khan review instead suggested a levy on the profits of the tobacco industry, based on the polluter pays principle. Does that proposal not commend itself to my noble friend?

As I say, we have tried to answer the four major points that Khan put forward, including doubling the spend from £70 million a year to £140 million. The levy was the one thing that was not so much favoured; there was a lot of modelling done on it and the thought was that the net increase would be only about £25 million or so. That is why it was thought better to look at taxes on tobacco itself as a way of raising revenue, and generally introducing the four major methods that Khan recommended.

My Lords, I refer to my interests as set out in the register. Would the Minister agree that smoking in pregnancy has enormously damaging effects, leading to much poorer birth outcomes than for mothers who do not smoke? Would he also agree that incentives to pregnant women not to smoke have been very effective? In the light of this, could he give a guarantee that the existing scheme, which comes to an end this year, will be continued with adequate resources, so that it is not in any way disrupted?

I totally agree with the noble Baroness on the importance of stopping smoking—always, but especially during pregnancy. In fact, we have a maternity debate coming straight after this, where this will be one of the things that we discuss. I hope, from showing that we are putting all this spend in place, that we are backing everything that works. As long as the anti-smoking in pregnancy measure continues to work, that will be one of the major features to make sure that we are continuing to stop all activity, but especially in pregnant ladies.

My Lords, in the light of the last question, I will change my question. What assessment have the Government made of the long-term harm that vaping will cause, particularly to young people?

The honest answer is that we do not know yet, and that is a problem. As we know, a number of these things take time to play through. That is why we want to make sure we take a precautionary approach. In this legislation, we aim to really stop anything that is targeted at young people in terms of vaping. We see vaping as an important tool to help people quit smoking, but we are equally sure that we never want anyone to start vaping. That is why we will also look at banning anything that targets young people, such as flavouring and packaging. We want to stop anything targeted at youth vaping.

My Lords, why are His Majesty’s Government ignoring the experience of New Zealand? That country has found the idea behind this Bill—it had a similar one—to be totally unworkable. Secondly, why are we undermining the existing scheme that has done so well, with under 2% of young people even bothering to take a taste of smoking? Does my noble friend not recognise that there are other, far more important health dimensions that need the resources that are to be wasted on this useless Bill?

First, my understanding about New Zealand is that one of the biggest bones of contention was that it was looking to reduce the number of smoking retailers from 6,000 to 600; that is where their Bill came into difficulty. I am afraid I must disagree with my noble friend on the importance of this. It costs the economy about £17 billion a year and causes about 80,000 deaths, and 80% of people who have taken up smoking wish that they had never started. I think those are very strong reasons which I know the majority of this House is behind, and that is why I am delighted to be introducing that legislation shortly.

My Lords, it has been reported that the decline in smoking has nearly ground to a halt since the pandemic, with many former smokers lapsing and many more young people now taking up smoking. Now that the smoking cessation drug cytisine is available, what is the Government’s assessment of how its availability will contribute or otherwise to the progress towards the smoke-free ambition by 2030? What plans are there to ensure its availability across the country, particularly among hard-to-reach groups of smokers?

Hopefully, my previous answer shows that we are investing major money in cessation services. I must admit to not being that familiar with the drug the noble Baroness mentions, so I will follow up in writing to give her the details.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that reducing the number of outlets that sell tobacco products does in fact have a positive effect on the prevalence of smoking? In this respect, can he indicate whether the Government are having any conversations with large supermarket chains, either individually or collectively, about voluntary reductions in the number of tobacco counters in their outlets? If that is not already happening, would he agree that it would be a good use of government time to do so?

Again, we are mindful of trying to get the balance right. Inevitably, by taking away a major market, which the over-18s will become as we go into it, smoking sales through retail units will go down more and more. We expect them to reduce as a result of that. We think that is probably getting the balance right, rather than trying to be overburdensome by saying, “No, you shall not be licensed to do that any more”. We think that will happen naturally through the market, because we are of course taking out a whole segment of future customers.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware of the report published this week by University College London, in association with Cancer Research UK, which suggests that banning disposable vapes would lead to fewer adults giving up smoking? Will he give an assurance that any proposals brought forward by the Government will be based on clear evidence and common sense, and not unevidenced enthusiasm?

I hope I could give my categorical agreement that everything is based on evidence and common sense; I will let people draw their own conclusions as to whether that is always the case. But, seriously, clearly anything we look at must be evidence-based. We will shortly be announcing the results of the consultation, which has a 28,000-strong evidence base, to show that we are really doing rigorous analysis.

My Lords, many Members of your Lordships’ House have received lobbying from tobacco companies over the years. Is the Minister aware that the Daily Telegraph reported last week that Philip Morris had threatened legal action against the Government over the consultation to which he referred in his first Answer. Can the Minister give an assurance that, if this lobbying is undertaken by tobacco companies, the Government will ignore it and go ahead with their very sensible and welcome plans?

Yes, I am aware of the moves, and I am sure there will be many more. I was advised that it was a fairly unusual legal challenge on consultation, which I believe was withdrawn quite quickly. Yes, there will be opposition, but we are determined, because of the importance of what we are trying to do.