It is a pleasure to be here to speak about the tobacco control plan, which celebrated its first anniversary only yesterday, as the Minister said. We are here to discuss the progress of the plan so far in reaching the Government’s goal of a smoke-free generation by 2022. I start by thanking the Government for allowing time for this debate to take place after all the drama and commotion of this week. As the Minister said, my first outing as shadow Minister for public health was in a debate on this issue, and thanks to him, we have the new, updated tobacco control plan that we are debating today. I know that it holds a very special place in both our hearts and, like him, I look forward to the debate.
The Opposition welcomed the plan and its ambitious goals, but we remain concerned about how they will be achieved by 2022. It is true that smoking is now thankfully at an all-time low, but the Government must not be complacent—I know that the Minister is not—and must not quit when it comes to measures that reduce smoking rates.
There are still 7.3 million adult smokers in the UK but, shockingly, smoking is an addiction of childhood, with the vast majority of smokers starting to smoke before the age of 18. Between 2014 and 2016, more than 127,000 children aged between just 11 and 15 started to smoke in the UK. According to a recent study by the Society for Research on Nicotine & Tobacco, this amounts to 350 young people starting smoking each day. That is equivalent to 17 classrooms of secondary school children starting to smoke every day. The Government therefore have a huge challenge on their hands—as we all do in Parliament—to tackle smoking in childhood and to reduce the rate of children smoking to 3% or less.
Between 2013 and 2016, the rate of decline in smoking among young people slowed down and the proportion of 15-year-old regular smokers had fallen from 8% to 7% but, at this rate, we will fail to achieve the ambition for England of 3% by 2022. The Minister mentioned in his opening remarks that we really will need to accelerate our progress when it comes to the number of children taking up smoking. Tackling this issue will be the first step to achieving a generation that is not only smoke-free, but healthier.
Smoking remains the leading cause of preventable premature death, such as from cancer or lung disease, and accounts for around 100,000 deaths each year in the UK. Each of those deaths could have been prevented. In 2015-16, there were approximately 474,000 smoking-related hospital admissions, with smokers also seeing their GPs 35% more often than non-smokers. In 2017, 22% of hospital admissions for respiratory problems were directly attributed to smoking. In 2015-16, smoking-related respiratory diseases cost NHS England £167.4 million in adult secondary care costs. I am sure that the Minister agrees with me that an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence estimates that every £1 invested in smoking cessation generates £2.37 in benefits. However, according to the King’s Fund, spending on smoking cessation services in 2017-18 was reduced by almost £16 million compared with figures for 2013-14. Furthermore, the Health Foundation has found that next year just £95 million will be spent on smoking and tobacco control services, which is 45% less than in 2014-15. Has the Minister made any assessment of the impact that those cuts will have on local smoking cessation services?
A study conducted by Action on Smoking and Health—ASH—and Cancer Research UK found that in 2017 budgets for stop smoking services were reduced in half of the local authorities in England, following reductions in 59% of authorities in 2016 and 39% in 2015. It is a wonder that there are any smoking cessation services left at all. What that means on the ground is that smokers who want to quit do not have access to the services that they need, and smokers who may need an extra push to seek help to quit are not getting that push.
Given that local smoking cessation services are on their knees, how does the Minister’s Department expect to reach the goal of reducing smoking rates to 12% by 2022? The Government’s own plan acknowledges that
“local stop smoking services continue to offer smokers the best chance of quitting”,
but cuts in local authorities’ funding have led to unacceptable variations in the quality and quantity of services available to the public. In my region of the north-east, the current smoking rate is 16.2%, which is down from 17.2% in 2016. That represents the biggest fall in smoking in England. It means that smoking rates in the north-east have fallen by more than 44% since 2005, when 29% of adults in the region smoked, and that there are about a quarter of a million fewer smokers.
It has to be said that that decline in smoking rates is due to the excellent programme Fresh north-east. I know that the Minister has commended the programme before, and no doubt he will take the opportunity to do so again. Its vision is to make smoking history and to reduce smoking prevalence in the north-east to 5% by 2025.