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Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): Does the Secretary of State think that it would be a good idea to talk to doctors, coroners and others to try to ensure that the number of times that smoking is put on the death certificate is increased significantly from the current handful, so that it is a factor that relatives and friends cannot ignore?
Mr. Milburn: That suggestion has much merit. It is often difficult to define the exact immediate cause of death, but there is overwhelming medical and scientific evidence to show that smoking is the principal cause of early death, and indeed of high levels of morbidity in many parts of the country and many sections of society. It is not an exaggeration to say that tobacco smoking is the biggest public health problem that the country faces. It is literally a public health disaster. I say to the hon. Gentleman in all candour that this Government, unlike the previous one, are determined to do something about it.
Cancer and coronary heart disease are the United Kingdom's biggest killers. Health services that treat cancer and heart disease are the Government's top priorities. In the next year alone they will receive an extra
In a modern society, however, it is not enough just to treat disease once it takes hold. Prevention is better than cure. That is why, for the first time in our country, the Government have introduced a major programme of action to prevent and reduce deaths from smoking.
Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): From 1970 to 1997, the prevalence of smoking declined by nearly 40 per cent. Since then, it has begun to rise. The right hon. Gentleman will of course be aware that, until the accession of this Government, the relationship with the tobacco advertising industry was characterised largely by voluntary agreements. Does he not perceive that this Government's attempt to raise prices sharply has created a smuggling market that has led to an increase in the prevalence of smoking?
Mr. Milburn: The hon. Gentleman is wrong on this, as he is on so many other things. The overwhelming scientific opinion, not just in this country but internationally, is that an increase in tobacco duties produces a fall in consumption levels. [Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman disagrees, I shall explain in more detail.
First, we have taken fiscal measures that have increased tobacco duties, because there is a clear link between price levels and consumption levels. In the last Budget, the increase in tobacco duties--£450 million across the United Kingdom--was hypothecated for use in the national health service, a measure opposed by the Conservative party.
Secondly, we have taken measures to crack down on the illegal smuggling of cigarettes and other tobacco products into the UK. More than £200 million is being spent by the Government on tackling this illegal trade, which poses such a health hazard to our country.
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): Does not the Secretary of State recognise that all around the country, but particularly in areas where there are major ports or airports, it is clear from conversations with police, prosecuting authorities and Customs and Excise officials that smuggling is on the increase? One has only to spend time in any of our seaside resorts to see smuggled tobacco openly on sale. Does the right hon. Gentleman not recognise that the Government's mismanagement of these issues has led to a huge increase in the supply of smuggled tobacco?
Mr. Milburn: That is not the case. I know that, unusually for the Conservative party in Parliament, there is much support for a tax harmonisation measure across Europe for tobacco, and that the hon. Members for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) and for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) are in favour of it. The evidence does not suggest that that would work. The idea that the smuggling of tobacco products, particularly cigarettes, is a problem peculiar to the United Kingdom is at variance with the facts. Countries such as Spain and Italy, which most right hon. and hon. Members would regard as having low taxation in relative terms, also have an enormous smuggling problem.
The truth is that, precisely because of the action that the Government are taking--the 1,000 extra Customs and Excise officers and the £250 million-worth of investment that we are putting into tackling the problem of smuggling--the number of seizures of cigarettes is rising.
Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Given what the right hon. Gentleman has just said about the desirability of raising excise duties on tobacco, how does he explain the fact that the hon. Member for Bristol, South (Dawn Primarolo), now Paymaster General, said precisely the opposite on 23 January 1995 in the Finance Bill Committee?
Mr. Milburn: I always think that it is better to judge right hon. and hon. Members by their deeds rather than their words, and that goes for the hon. Gentleman too. My hon. Friend the Paymaster General is as committed as I am to tackling smuggling. Indeed, she has been responsible, alongside my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, for pioneering the extra investment to tackle what all right hon. and hon. Members agree is a very serious problem. It might be interesting if the hon. Gentleman told us whether his party supports the extra investment that the Government are putting into Customs and Excises services.
Thirdly, we have invested £50 million in an education campaign to inform the public of the dangers of smoking. I believe that people have a right to choose to smoke. If that is what they want to do, they have a right to do it. They also have a right to know the implications for themselves and, more important, for others, of their decision to do so. For decades, tobacco companies have spent millions peddling the merits of smoking. Today, the Government are spending millions informing people of its dangers. That is the right priority.
Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton): My right hon. Friend mentions education. He will be aware that the tobacco industry advertises near schools, especially in poorer areas. Does he agree that the voluntary code, which suggests a distance of 200 m, is not good enough? A mandatory element is needed, so as to ensure that our young people are not attracted to smoking at such an early age.
Mr. Milburn: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In a moment, I shall refer to the rather perverse nature of some advertising and to some of the perverse claims made by the tobacco industry about the strategies behind its advertising campaigns. From all the research that has been undertaken--not only in this country but abroad--there is little doubt that the denials of the tobacco industry about the need to recruit additional smokers, especially among young people, are untrue. As my hon. Friend points out, the voluntary code has not delivered the goods. Anyone who believes that the tobacco industry makes such an investment in tobacco advertising out of the goodness of its heart is naive in the extreme.
Fourthly, alongside information to encourage people to give up, we are providing more help for smokers who want to give up. Seventy per cent. of smokers say that they want to quit. We are giving them more help than they have ever had to do so. There is a £50 million smoking cessation programme; and nicotine replacement therapy and the new product Zyban are both available on prescription. Specialist services are being made available, especially in the poorest areas. Extra help is offered for pregnant women to kick the habit. We now have the most comprehensive smoking cessation services anywhere in the world.
These services, alongside other action that we are taking, will help us meet the tough targets that we have set to reduce the number of people who smoke and to cut deaths from smoking. Over the first three years of this programme we expect almost 100,000 smokers to have quit the habit.
The next step in this comprehensive programme of action on smoking is to end tobacco sponsorship and advertising. The Bill is not anti-smoker any more than it is anti-sport or anti-choice. It is a tough but proportionate response to the marketing and promotion of the only legally available product that is guaranteed to kill one in two of its regular, long-term users.