Protecting the health of young people, reducing preventable deaths and increasing the overall health of the population in Britain are three important goals.
However, the absence of a bill introducing plain packaging for cigarettes in the Queen’s speech undermines the Government’s commitment to these goals.
The Moral Imperative
Cancer is an illness that touches many people’s lives.
Whilst research is key to finding new ways to treat cancer, there are simple and practical measures that the Government can take to prevent avoidable deaths.
Last week, the Government failed to put into place one of these measures that could help reduce cancer and other forms of smoking related diseases considerably.
The introduction of standardised, plain packaging has been heralded as a good idea by a number of members of the Government.
The Honourable Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich, a member of the medical profession and current health minister has previously shown his support for plain packaging, he said and I am quoting: [it]
"...could certainly help to reduce the brand marketing appeal of cigarettes to teenagers, and most importantly, help to stop young people from developing a smoking habit that can only shorten their lives."
Mr Speaker, I agree with him.
The Honourable Member for Broxtowe, also a health minister, has stated that the evidence she has seen: and I am quoting:
“...suggests that it is the attractiveness of the packets that leads young people to decide to take up smoking."
Mr Speaker, I agree with her.
Yet, three years into this Parliament, no action has been taken by the Government.
According to Cancer Research UK, over 100, 000 deaths are caused by tobacco each year in the UK.
These could be much reduced, if the Government takes meaningful action.
In 2007, the then Labour Government took action to curb the harmful effects of smoking, by banning smoking in public places.
An introduction of plain packaging for cigarettes is a natural progression to help ensure a healthier population.
As the leader of the opposition said in his response to the Queens speech;
"It’s the right thing for public health; it’s the right thing for this country."
Mr Speaker, I definitely agree with him!
Since the Government’s consultation into this matter closed in August 2012, over 150,000 children will have started an addiction that results in the death of half of its long-term users.
Prevention of Young People Taking Up Smoking
I accept that the introduction of plain packaging is not a silver bullet solution, but neither is it – as some have described – a draconian measure that stigmatizes smokers and reduces consumer choice.
What it is – is a means of preventing young people taking up a habit that in the long run could cost them their lives.
257,000 11-15 year olds become smokers each year.
I believe this number is unacceptable.
We already have legislation to prevent children below 18 buying cigarettes, we banned smoking in public places, but more needs to be done.
The Cost of Smoking
The true cost of smoking can be seen when you look at its impact in towns such as the one I am proud to represent.
The financial costs encompass much more than heightened NHS expenses.
Lost output and lost productivity both increase the price associated with smoking.
For Barnsley alone, smoking creates a bill amounting to £75.3m each year.
Yet the financial cost is small compared to the human cost;in Barnsley there are 485 adult deaths from smoking each year.
Despite this, the number of children smoking remains high; 951 children aged 11-15 take up smoking in Barnsley each year and approximately 1,100 10-14 year olds are regular smokers.
Like the rest of the UK, Barnsley has paid too high a price; it is time action is taken to prevent the costs of smoking stretching further and further into the future.
The Role of Advertising
Mr Speaker – let us be clear: Advertising works.
If it did not, the tobacco industry would not spend such vast amounts of time, money and effort on packaging presentation.
They would not be opposing plain packaging with such vigour.
For the tobacco industry – packaging is a form of advertising that helps to keep customers loyal and attract new ones.
On this point, the World Health Organisation is very clear:
“Marketing of tobacco products encourages current smokers to smoke more, decreases their motivation to quit and urges young people to start”.
Of course children will be attracted to sophisticated and glamorous packaging.
And the now Leader of the House, when Health Secretary, echoed this view stating, and I quote:
“It's wrong that children are being attracted to smoke by glitzy designs on packets... children should be protected from the start.”
Mr Speaker, unusually – I agree with him also!
And lack of evidence cannot be used as an excuse for delaying this essential legislation. Advertising does impact on young people’s decisions – in the context of smoking this means that children’s health is put at risk.
The trade-off between the tobacco industry and children’s health has too long been in favour of the industry.
It is time something is done to readdress this balance.
There is also clear support for plain packaging from the public.
Last year, 63% of the UK public supported standardised, plain packaging and only 16% of people opposed.
So a lack of public support is not holding the Government back in introducing this legislation.
Infact, 85% of people back government action to reduce the number of young people who start smoking.
By delaying the next step in smoking prevention, the Government are not only putting a future generation’s health at risk, they are ignoring a key issue that British people want and need Parliament to address.
Action is Needed
So there is the evidence, the public support and the moral imperative to act.
Yet the Government has failed to take the definitive action needed to save lives, reduce healthcare costs and prevent children’s health being put at risk.
I am in no doubt that plain packaging is the right thing for public health and the right thing for the country.
I am in no doubt we will get to the point where we have ‘plain packaging’ in this country – and then, we’ll wonder – why did it take so long?
We will wonder why it took so long to protect children against the harmful impacts of smoking.
We will wonder about the lives that could have been saved if we had acted sooner.
Well we can stop wondering if we act sooner rather than later.
We know advertising works – and smoking kills.
Mr Speaker – it is time to do something about it.