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As the Secretary of State pointed out, it is not against the law to manufacture or import tobacco products provided that regulatory requirements governing those products are met. It is not illegal to sell tobacco products except to children under 16, and they are sold through more than 200,000 retail outlets and sales points. It is not illegal to buy and smoke tobacco products, and 15 million adults sadly do. The Government earn handsomely through the system.
Irrespective of which party is in governmentand irrespective of what we ourselves may think about those freedomswe have to ask ourselves whether, since the Government not only profit from those freedoms but accept them as legitimate, adults who choose to exercise them should not be able to make informed choices about the range of those legally available products. Where does regulation end and a ban start? How do we differentiate between the two? If the Government do not believe that such freedoms should exist, it would be more honest to restrict the availability and distribution of tobacco rather than merely dealing with advertising.
Michael Fabricant: I accept my hon. Friend's argument on freedom of choiceindeed, I note the increase in the nanny state since the Labour party came into powerbut does he share my concern that advertising encourages people to smoke who would not otherwise do so? Does he also acknowledge the fact that it was perhaps the most libertarian of Governmentsthe Administration in the 1980swho made the then Independent Broadcasting Authority impose a ban on tobacco advertising for the health of the nation?
Dr. Fox: My hon. Friend makes two important points, and I will deal in moment with the record of the Conservative Government. He raises an essential philosophical question: when should Governments intervene and restrict the freedom of individuals? There are undoubtedly cases in which state intervention is acceptablefor example, to protect the weak and vulnerable from being preyed on. That is the basis of our legal system and the protections that we afford our people. However, there is also a utilitarian argument which says that because there is a large financial cost to society and, therefore, to each individual within it of the choices made by a few, it is acceptable to limit freedoms in certain circumstances. We are asking whether the example of tobacco consumption, sale and advertising comes within that argument.
Some people say that it is not acceptable for the state to interfere with individual choices, which is the libertarian argument. I simply say to them that, on re-reading Hayek's "The Road to Serfdom" recently, I was interested to come across the following paragraph:
Dr. Fox: Were we not imposing restrictions on freedoms, the Bill would not be before us and it would not involve banning, which implies removing something that is currently legal. We have to consider whether there are alternative means. If the Government believe that there are not, we must consider whether safeguards should be built into the Bill to which we can return in light of evidence at a later date.
Dr. Evan Harris: As someone who comes from a party that purports to know something about liberalism, I accept the hon. Gentleman's argument that such legislation restricts liberty. The question is whether that is justified on the basis of harm. We have to strike a balance between the restriction of liberty and the harm that can be prevented. In that context, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the thrust of his argument would carry greater conviction if his party were a little more liberal on things which clearly do no harm, such as the private consenting behaviour of adults in the bedroom, in relation to which his party has a prejudiced view that goes against liberty without requiring any proof of harm being done? That is an important point.
Dr. Fox: One might think that, after all these years, we would have learnt that taking interventions from certain Members of the House does nothing to further the debate. Certainly we have no lessons to take from parties such as the Liberal Democrats, who want to legalise many drugs that would be a lot more carcinogenic and more harmful to people
Dr. Fox: Such as cannabis, which is a good deal more carcinogenic than tobacco. Of course, the Liberal Democrats are now famous for selective liberalism, having abandoned the genuine liberal tradition, which I would suggest these days rests more on the Conservative Benches.
Dr. Fox: No, I certainly have no intention of giving way to the hon. Gentleman again, in this debate or in any subsequent debate. If I were a rat and such a slow learner, I would probably have been exterminated in some experiment by now.
In 1980, advertising expenditure on cigarette brand posters was limited to 30 per cent. of the amount spent. As the right hon. Gentleman said, there were restrictions on poster advertising in schools and other educational establishments, and such advertisements were not allowed in publications wholly or largely aimed at young people. There was a ban on tobacco advertising in cinemas and on video cassettes and computer games.
For the Secretary of State to say that no action was taken is demeaning in a debate of this nature. In those years, this country was one of the most successful in the world in reducing smoking prevalence, and we should take pride in that. Between 1971 and 1996, tobacco consumption fell by more than 37 per cent. and prevalence fell by 40 per cent. Policies to reduce advertising were complemented by better public health education and taxation policies that made smoking progressively more expensive and reduced consumption.
Mr. David Hinchliffe (Wakefield): I want to return to the essence of the logic behind the hon. Gentleman's reasoned amendment and the point about liberalism. I recall, many years ago, reading a 19th-century philosopher who said, "Your freedom to swing your stick ends where my nose begins." Will the hon. Gentleman expand on the point about how the individual freedom that he describes balances out against the freedom of others to be free from tobacco? He talks about the weak and the vulnerable, but what about protecting children and young people from indulging in smoking?
Dr. Fox: I was frank about the need for a balance, and we accept the restriction of individual freedoms in other areas. The question, which I am going to deal with, is whether this particular ban falls within those parameters. We are a little cavalier in wanting to ban things without thinking sufficiently about all the detailed arguments that we should raise in the House.
To return to the point that I was making, the Conservative Government's judicious mix of advertising restrictions, taxation policies and public health education meant that we had a very good record. The question that is very difficult to answer is which part of the mixture was most successful in reducing smoking prevalence. It is difficult to say what is the relative importance of each of the three strands of policy.
Despite the continuation of advertising restrictions and health education under this Government, there has been a much smaller reduction in the number of adult smokers and a rise in the number of children who smoke. It is worth pointing out to the House that the figures are quite horrifying. The latest available figures show that between 1999 and 2000, the number of boys who smoked either occasionally or regularly went up from 12 per cent. to 16 per cent, while the number of girls who smoked occasionally or regularly went up from 16 per cent. to