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8.24 pm

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring): I should like to begin by thanking my hon. Friends the Members for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) and for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) for the tremendous work that they put into examining the Bill in the time allowed by the programme motion.

As the Minister for Public Health said, the Bill has a simple and oft-repeated aim. The Opposition share that aim, which is to reduce smoking. No one doubts that smoking is bad and damages health. As far as I know,

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nobody has tried during the passage of the Bill to argue the converse and to suggest that smoking is not a bad thing. However, the Opposition have argued that an evidence-based approach must be brought to the debate. If doctors involved in treating the consequences of smoking have to practise evidence-based medicine, surely it is a useful discipline for the House to practise evidence-based policy. In other words, we must consider whether the Bill will work and achieve the aims that it sets out to achieve.

It is also necessary for the debate to be properly balanced and fully informed. The Minister said that smoking was a cause of health inequality, but it is not only the consumption of tobacco that produces inequalities. As she would be the first to admit, people who consume tobacco are far less likely to present early during any episode of illness, especially when they are on low incomes. That contributes as much to poor outcomes as tobacco usage and explains why smokers in middle-class areas have better survival rates than those in low-income areas. Wider issues such as those must be taken into account.

The first question is whether the Bill will work. Secondly, however, we must ask under what circumstances, if any, it is appropriate to ban the advertising of a legal product. That question is especially important when, as hon. Members on both sides of the House must candidly admit, the Government raise so much revenue from that product. Although health Ministers complain regularly about the tactics used by tobacco companies to raise consumption at particular times of year, I do not see the Treasury giving the money back. Health Ministers always pray for a reduction in tobacco consumption, but I have often suspected, in debates about the willingness--or otherwise--of Governments to reduce the consumption of tobacco, that the same number of Treasury officials are praying that smokers will not give up and will continue to provide money for the Government's coffers.

On Second Reading, the Opposition argued that a coherent strategy was required, but that the Government had not produced one. We also argued that the introduction of a ban would be merely window dressing if the price of tobacco products was falling and consumption was rising because they were available to more people. We said that the Government's failure to tackle smuggling effectively put more people at risk--especially those in the groups mentioned by the Minister. As all hon. Members can tell from anecdotal constituency evidence, it is increasingly easy for young people to gain access to tobacco, perhaps because it is available in pub car parks or because it has been smuggled and is cheap and readily available to them.

Despite those factors, and the Government's argument about the big impact of advertising, the explanatory notes to the Bill state that the eventual aim of the Bill is to reduce consumption by only 2.5 per cent. That is important in terms of decreased morbidity and mortality, but most people outside the House will not regard it as a dramatic reduction.

A number of practical difficulties have been mentioned--

Mr. Forth: I should like to ask my question now, as I sense that my hon. Friend is about comment--no doubt

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briefly--on the detail of the Bill. Does he accept that the Bill must be revised through the addition of a sunset clause, a review requirement or another such provision? Surely we cannot walk blindly into introducing the Bill, assert that it is a good thing and leave it at that. Given all the uncertainties that he has already mentioned, what will my hon. Friend do about that, if it is not already too late?

Dr. Fox: My right hon. Friend will know from the selection list that we could not debate the concept of a time limit in respect of this legislation today. However, if evidence exists to show that such a ban works, there is nothing to fear from a time-limiting clause. If the measure does not work when it is enacted, it will be hard to argue for its continued existence. We shall attempt to introduce a time limit on the Bill in another place so that it becomes genuinely evidence based. Those who consider such issues rationally will regard that as fair and acceptable.

I want to consider some of the Bill's practical difficulties. I am grateful for the Minister's willingness in Committee to acknowledge some of the shortcomings in the original drafting and accept the spirit of many Opposition amendments in tabling Government amendments. The Government made welcome concessions on brand sharing; on offences, through Government amendments Nos. 40, 41 and 43; on electronic transmissions; and on sponsorship agreements. They will improve a measure that was not initially well drafted. Irrespective of hon. Members' feelings about the purpose of the Bill, it is in the interests of all legislators to ensure that the quality of Bills is as good as possible. However, practical difficulties remain. If we had more time, we might have been able to explore them more fully. They may yet make implementing the Bill impossible.

It is worth pointing out, in a difficult argument about restrictions on advertising a legal product, that the previous Government restricted tobacco advertising. The code of conduct that was introduced in 1994 set stringent limitations on such advertising. Governments in this country have not taken an absolute position; we are considering the extent to which we should make such a restriction.

The United Kingdom did well for many years in reducing tobacco consumption and smoking prevalence through a combination of price mechanism, education and restrictions, if not a ban, on tobacco advertising. There was a consensus on that in the House of Commons and in the country. The United Kingdom had a good record. We are considering the appropriate balance between the three policy components, and whether the Bill has achieved that.

We must also consider the requirements for a proper anti-smoking policy. As we said on Second Reading, we must re-examine our education policy. To convey an effective health message, it must be aimed at the right age group and sustained for long enough to make a difference. Too often, Ministers interfere politically and reject the advice of those who understand the matter better. We have thus failed to address the appropriate health message to the right client group. We have missed a trick, and we need to reconsider our education policy as part of an anti-smoking strategy.

An advertising ban will not remove one of the greatest influences on young people: the example set by parents and peer groups. Those matters must be tackled. We must

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ensure that parents do not set youngsters a bad example by smoking, which only encourages them to believe that it is acceptable. We must also ensure that we diminish the influence of peer groups as much as possible. That task is rendered even more difficult when role models smoke. Earlier, the example was given of supermodels smoking on the catwalk, and the concept, especially for young girls, of a link between tobacco and being slim. That is a dangerous idea. As a society, we must consider how to tackle such matters.

The Minister mentioned what she perceived to be the success of advertising restrictions in other countries. We must ask about the other policies that were in place at the same time. No one would argue that simply banning advertising is a sufficient anti-smoking strategy. The Government will have their way because of their numerical superiority in Parliament and, over time, they will be able to make their case. We shall be able to judge the measure's effectiveness against whether tobacco consumption decreases in the real world.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon): My hon. Friend will know that a number of Conservative Members are very much in favour of a limitation on tobacco advertising because of the dangers that it can present to health. Does he, however, accept that the Bill had an opportunity to make two provisions that it does not make? The first is to increase the medical warning on a packet of cigarettes so that it occupies a much larger percentage of the display, as has been done in Australia; the second is to deal with the problem of passive smoking for those with lung diseases, for whom it is a considerable problem.

Dr. Fox: I should declare an interest in relation to my right hon. Friend's second point. As an asthma sufferer, I find it a perpetual source of irritation to have to inhale other people's tobacco smoke. However, that matter does not come within the scope of the Bill, and I am sure that you would quickly rule me out of order if I were to go down that route, Madam Deputy Speaker.

My right hon. Friend is right to say that the Bill has missed opportunities to consider wider issues that might have formed part of a fuller, more comprehensive anti-smoking strategy. However, he will be aware that, for every Conservative Member who might wish to go along with a ban on advertising, there will be another who believes that such a ban constitutes an unacceptable infringement of civil liberties.

As I was saying, we shall have the proof of the pudding later, when we determine whether the Government have been successful in achieving a reduction in smoking. The Bill is merely window dressing, and the Government are failing to take a broader grip on the problems of smuggling and reduced pricing that are pushing up--and will continue to push up--tobacco consumption.

Many hon. Members have strong reservations about restricting freedom, and I understand why they would wish to vote against the Bill on that basis. However, I have seen enough damage in coronary care units and respiratory units to understand the tragedy that tobacco consumption can produce. The Opposition do not intend to divide the House on the Bill tonight. We shall, however, seek to amend it in another place to introduce a time limit to weigh the benefits of retaining the legislation

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against the evidence that is produced. We all hope that tobacco consumption can be reduced, but we are less than confident that the Bill is the vehicle to produce that result.

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