Tobacco: Packaging


5.12 pm

Lord Tunnicliffe (Lab): My Lords, I note that we are about to have a Statement but we do not have a Minister. May I encourage the noble Lord to move that the House do adjourn during pleasure for five minutes for the Front Bench to get itself a Minister?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Taylor of Holbeach) (Con): This is a just-in-time delivery, if I may say so.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Earl Howe) (Con): My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall now repeat a Statement made earlier today by my honourable friend the Minister for Public Health in another place on standardised packaging of tobacco products. The Statement is as follows:

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a Statement about the publication of Sir Cyril Chantler’s report on the standardised packaging of tobacco products.

Smoking kills nearly 80,000 people each year in England alone. One out of two long-term smokers will die of a smoking-related disease and our cancer outcomes stubbornly lag behind much of Europe. Quite apart from the enormous pressure this creates on the NHS it is a cruel waste of human potential. Yet we all know that the vast majority of smokers want to quit and, even more tragically, we also know that two-thirds of smokers become addicted before they are 18. As a nation, therefore, we should consider every effective measure we can to stop children taking up smoking in the first place.

That is why, in November last year, I asked Sir Cyril Chantler to undertake an independent review as to whether or not the introduction of standardised packaging of tobacco is likely to have an effect on public health, in particular in relation to children. Sir Cyril has presented his report to me and to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State, and we had the benefit of a personal briefing from Sir Cyril yesterday, in which he highlighted the key conclusions of his review.

Having reviewed Sir Cyril’s findings, I was keen to share this important report with the House without delay, as I recognise the significant interest that many Members have shown in this issue. I will of course place copies in both House Libraries. The evidence has been examined, the arguments for and against have been thoroughly explored and their merit assessed by Sir Cyril, who also visited Australia in the course of

3 Apr 2014 : Column 1122

his review. I asked in particular that the report focus on the potential for standardised packaging to have an impact on the health of children.

It is clear that smoking is a disease of adolescence and we know that, across the UK, more than 200,000 children aged between 11 and 15 start smoking every year. In other words, around 600 children start smoking in the UK every day. Many of these children will grow up with a nicotine addiction that they will find extremely difficult to break. That is a tragedy for these young people, their families and for the public health of our nation. Sir Cyril points out that if this rate of smoking by children were reduced even by 2%, for example, it would mean that 4,000 fewer children take up smoking each year.

Sir Cyril’s report makes a compelling case that, if standardised packaging were introduced, it would be very likely to have a positive impact on public health and that these health benefits would include health benefits for children. The Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies, has read Sir Cyril’s report and sent me a letter with her initial views. Dame Sally said:

‘The Chantler review only reinforces my beliefs of the public health gains to be achieved from standardised packaging’.

I have placed copies of Dame Sally’s letter in the House Libraries. Importantly, the report highlights that any such policy must be seen in the round, as part of a comprehensive policy of tobacco control measures. That is exactly how I see the potential for standardised packaging to work in this country.

In the light of this report and the responses to the previous consultation in 2012, I am therefore currently minded to proceed with introducing regulations to provide for standardised packaging. However, in order to ensure that that decision is properly and fully informed, I intend to publish the draft regulations, so that it is crystal clear what is intended, alongside a final, short consultation, in which I will ask, in particular, for views on anything new since the last full public consultation that is relevant to the final decision on this policy. I will announce the details about the content and timing of that very shortly but would invite those with an interest to start considering any responses they might wish to make now. The House will understand that I want to move forward as swiftly as possible, and Parliament gave us the regulation-making powers in the Act.

Finally, I should like to pay tribute to the excellent job that Sir Cyril and his team have done in preparing such a thorough analysis of the available evidence on standardised packaging of tobacco products. I believe the report will be widely acknowledged both for its forensic approach and its authoritative conclusions. We want our nation’s children to grow up happy and healthy and free from the heavy burden of disease that tobacco brings. I commend this Statement and Sir Cyril’s report to the House”.

That concludes the Statement.

5.17 pm

Baroness Wheeler (Lab): I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. I also take this opportunity to place on record the Opposition’s thanks to Sir Cyril

3 Apr 2014 : Column 1123

Chantler and our congratulations on his excellent review of the public health evidence. We welcome much of what the Minister said, but I am sure that we share with other noble Lords who have long campaigned on this issue our frustration at the prospect of yet another consultation—albeit on regulations—especially when Sir Cyril's review is so clear and unequivocal about the impact that standardised packaging would have.

We know that the case for the introduction of standardised packaging is, as ever, urgent. The cost to the NHS of treating diseases caused by smoking is approximately £2.7 billion a year. Two-thirds of adult smokers took up smoking as children. One in two long-term smokers dies prematurely as a result of smoking-related diseases, and more than 200,000 children take up smoking every year in the UK. As Sir Cyril says, if we can reduce that figure by even 2%, that is 4,000 fewer children taking up smoking every year. For that reason, we strongly welcome the confirmation in Sir Cyril’s review of what public health experts have been arguing for some time—namely, that standardised packaging makes cigarettes less attractive to young people and could help save lives.

Sir Cyril's remit was to consider whether standardised packaging would lead to a decrease in tobacco consumption. Does the Minister not accept his clear conclusion that,

“standardised packaging would serve to reduce the rate of children taking up smoking”,

and that it could lead to,

“an important reduction … on the uptake and prevalence of smoking and … have a positive impact on public health”?

Of course, this is something that all the previous evidence reviews showed. Indeed, Sir Cyril states:

“My overall findings are not dissimilar to those of previous reviews”.

Did not the Government’s own systematic review in 2012, which Sir Cyril describes as “extensive and authoritative”, conclude that standardised packaging is less appealing than branded packaging, that it makes the health warnings more prominent and that it refutes the utter falsehood that some brands are healthier than others?

All the royal colleges and health experts, including the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, the BMA and the campaigning health charities are united on this. The majority of responses to the Government’s own consultation also favoured it. Does the Minister therefore finally accept that there is an overwhelming body of evidence in favour of standardised packaging and that there can be no excuse for further delay?

The House will know that Labour has long called for the immediate introduction of standardised packaging. However, for every step we took in government on smoking and tobacco, the tobacco industry fought us all the way and then took a new approach. As my noble friend Lady Thornton put it when we recently pressed for amendments introducing standardised packaging to be included in the Children and Families Bill,

“we are talking about whether we are prepared to allow the over-powerful and wealthy tobacco companies to gain their next market for the profits they need to make from tobacco products

3 Apr 2014 : Column 1124

… They can exist only if they continue to recruit young people to tobacco addiction so that they have their next generation of smokers”.—[

Official Report

, 20/11/13; col. GC 404-05.]

Do the Government not accept that the failure to take action on this issue under the Children and Families Bill was yet another missed opportunity? After Labour banned tobacco advertising, manufacturers developed increasingly sophisticated marketing devices for their packaging. We know that they spend millions every year on design testing to lure in new, young smokers. The question is: why have we had to wait so long for action on standardised packaging? Does the Minister accept the impact that further delay will have? More than 70,000 children will have taken up smoking since the Minister announced the review, and today he announced yet another consultation. The Government have already had a consultation, which reported less than a year ago. What do they expect to change?

At the time of announcing Sir Cyril’s review last November, the Government promised to issue regulations if they could be persuaded by the case made by Sir Cyril. Now they say that they are persuaded that he has made a “compelling case”—so why the further consultation and inevitable delay? Is this another attempt to kick the matter into the long grass, and can we be reassured that there will not be another government U-turn on this issue? How many more children will take up smoking before the Government make a decision and act? Does the Minister not accept that it is the clear will of both Houses of this Parliament to proceed with standardised packaging without further delay?

5.22 pm

Earl Howe: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her welcome of Sir Cyril’s report. I share with her my admiration for the thoroughness with which he tackled a task in a short space of time, considering how much work he had to do.

Sir Cyril has produced a compelling report, and I urge noble Lords to take the opportunity to read it; it is extremely readable, as well as persuasive. As I said, he has made a compelling case on the public health evidence. However, to make robust policy in this area, it is essential that we follow a careful process. I understand the noble Baroness’s impatience to make progress on this issue, and we share that desire. However, we have to look at everything in the round if we are to make policy that is considered and well thought through. We have to give everybody who has a stake in the decision an opportunity to make their case. Therefore, I cannot stand here now and say that the Government will definitely proceed to make regulations. We must now take stock of Sir Cyril’s report and look at it alongside the other, non-health-related issues that need to be considered.

On that issue, we will hold a six-week consultation to ensure that our decision is properly and fully informed by any further relevant views and, very importantly, that it will be capable of withstanding the greatest scrutiny, including in the courts. The noble Baroness was absolutely right to mention the strong potential for matters of this kind to end up in legal action; the Australian Government are already in the courts on

3 Apr 2014 : Column 1125

this issue. We want to be able to demonstrate to all stakeholders that the process has been fair and thorough and that we have moved at a pace that is reasonably rapid but which at the same time enables us to develop robust policy.

The consultation will include draft regulations for consideration. Far from this being a repeat of the previous consultation, it will enable people to look at the precise proposals that would be contained in regulations, if approved by Parliament. The timing of the consultation will be announced shortly and details provided on the Department of Health website. As to when we will bring in regulations, should the Government make a final decision to go ahead with standardised packaging, we would need to consider the timetable. However, our aim would be to make the regulations before the end of this Parliament. I hope the noble Baroness will accept that, far from kicking the issue into the long grass, as she put it, we have every intention of doing the opposite.

I believe that I have addressed most of the noble Baroness’s questions and points, but I shall write to her if there is something I have missed out.

5.26 pm

Baroness Tyler of Enfield (LD): My Lords, I strongly welcome Sir Cyril’s report, which is an extremely thorough piece of work. The central message from it is crystal clear and compelling; the introduction of standardised packaging would reduce the number of children and young people taking up smoking. I look forward to reading the draft regulations and the consultation, which I hope will be short. I would be grateful if the Minister would confirm that he talked about six weeks. Does he agree that, if the Government introduce this, we are going very much with the grain of public opinion? A new poll, issued today by YouGov, found that 64% of adults in Great Britain support or strongly support plain, standardised packaging, with only 11% opposed to the measure.

Earl Howe: I am very grateful to my noble friend. I confirm that we intend to have a consultation period of six weeks. That is as long as we think it needs to be to enable everyone with an interest, both for and against this measure, to make their views known and to enable us to factor in any considerations we may not yet have had an opportunity to consider. Although I have not seen the YouGov report to which my noble friend refers, I suspect she is absolutely right that public opinion is moving in the direction that Sir Cyril has advocated, and that we are going with the grain of what most people think. Most right-thinking people want children to be protected from the harms of tobacco. I hope that we will have public opinion behind us, should we decide to go ahead with this.

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff (CB): My Lords, like the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, I strongly welcome this report. It is an extremely readable, clearly laid out and very balanced review. I remind the House that it is 60 years since the original Doll and Peto observations that tobacco was linked to an early death. Their follow-up

3 Apr 2014 : Column 1126

study, 50 years on, showed that those men who smoked only cigarettes and continued smoking had a life expectancy 10 years shorter than non-smokers. There is a long history behind this.

Looking at standardised packaging, it is worth noting that, as this report has highlighted,

“the pack has become the main promotional platform for the tobacco industry to recruit and retain customers”.

As has been said, the evidence from Australia is that plain packaging gives the impression that the cigarettes are lower in quality and less satisfying than those in the previously marketed packaging.

I would like to ask the Minister about standardised packaging, which comes from having listened to the debate in the other place after the ministerial Statement. I am concerned that there may be scaremongering going on over jobs. This type of standardised packaging is complex packaging and anti-counterfeit measures require complex design and printing techniques which this country is extremely good at. Our printing and packaging industry probably is one of the world leaders in developing really good types of packaging where anti-counterfeit measures can be included.

It is of concern that the term “plain” is still being used, which is completely different from complex standardised packaging. HMRC inspectors are clear that they can detect counterfeit standardised packaging more easily than the current commercial types of packaging when those are counterfeited. I seek reassurance from the Minister that the regulations will include the inability for the tobacco industry to do what is being done in Australia. One or two extra cigarettes are included as a loss leader for the same price as a packet of 20 as a promotional activity to make the packet more attractive. I also seek reassurance that the standardised packaging will be standardised on the outside; that there will be a standardised number of cigarettes inside; and that there will not be the ability to include tempting extra gifts, whether that is cigarettes or anything else. Does the Minister have any idea when the six-week consultation that he outlined will start and when the completion date is likely to be?

Earl Howe: The noble Baroness has raised a number of important points. As regards the effect on jobs, this is exactly the sort of question that we want people to address when responding to the consultation. If there are legitimate concerns about jobs, we want to hear about them. We want to understand exactly what the concerns consist of and whether they are robustly supported by evidence. The noble Baroness drew attention to the word “standardised” and asked me whether by that term we intended it as an antithesis to the word “complex”. I would rather say that standardised is the opposite of branded because it is the branding that is in focus here. As she will have seen from Sir Cyril’s report, he makes some very powerful points about the effect of branding. He said that,

“industry documents show that tobacco packaging has for decades been designed, in the light of market research, with regard to what appeals to target groups. Branded cigarettes are ‘badge’ products, frequently on display, which therefore act as a ‘silent salesman.’ Tobacco packages appear to be especially important as a means of communicating brand imagery in countries like Australia and the UK which have comprehensive bans on advertising and promotion”.

3 Apr 2014 : Column 1127

The word “standardised” is intended to signify a commonality of rather bland packaging, subject of course to European Union rules. I am sure that the noble Baroness is aware that the draft tobacco directive makes provision for a number of features to be included in the packaging; for example, 65% of the surface area of a packet of cigarettes will need to comprise of warnings. The minimum size of a packet of cigarettes will go up to 20 cigarettes and packets of 10 will be illegal. Other provisions are designed to prevent tobacco companies from using their packaging in whatever way to entice people to smoke, which includes free gifts and other features.

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff: Before the noble Earl sits down, may I remind him that I asked about the timescale?

Earl Howe: I beg the noble Baroness’s pardon. It is a little early for me to be specific on that. I have been as specific as I can on the timescale in which we hope to introduce regulations, but I will need to come back to the noble Baroness on the timescale for their implementation.

Baroness Wall of New Barnet (Lab): My Lords, I want to briefly add my congratulations on and support for the report, and to associate myself with the frustration that I think my noble friend on the Front Bench has portrayed. Many other people, including clinicians in my own hospital, are already seeing the effects of smoking on children as young as 11, which is very worrying.

I should like the noble Earl to think about two things. First, has the breadth and depth of the consultation been different from and wider than the previous

3 Apr 2014 : Column 1128

consultation, which was not very long ago? Secondly, the noble Earl made a comment along the lines that we must make sure that we do not end up in litigation because we want to ensure the fairness of this. I must advise the noble Earl that consultation will never be strong enough to prevent litigation. We must do all we can to consult everybody, but we shall be waiting for ever if we wait for something that will prevent people pursuing litigation when they really do not want these things to happen. I am sure the noble Earl is aware of this, but please let this consultation not be so exhaustive that we include everything that will stop the courts taking up some of the issues.

Earl Howe: The noble Baroness makes a good point about litigation. My response is that if it comes to litigation, and of course we hope it will not, we will have the strongest possible defence against any accusation that we have somehow skimped or not taken account of evidence. In defence of the Government, I also point to the other measures we are taking to bear down upon the prevalence of smoking. The noble Baroness knows very well that we have had some excellent debates on smoking in cars, proxy purchasing of tobacco, and prohibiting the sale of electronic cigarettes to under-18s. I hope the good faith of the Government is not in doubt here and I share her wish to see progress made as swiftly as possible.

On the subject of the timetable, I did not make clear that while we believe that we have sufficient time to allow regulations to be introduced within this Parliament, we shall move to give both Houses our final decision on whether we are going ahead with this before the Summer Recess.

House adjourned at 5.38 pm.