Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:18 pm on 3rd November 2022.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend; I was not aware of some of the research to which she referred. However, the reduction in smoking has plateaued in recent times, and that is lamentable. I have a big enough heart to say that the Conservative Government have done much over the years to reduce smoking, building on much of what the Labour Government did between 1997 and 2010, but we cannot allow ourselves to stop there. We need to do so much more.
There are often arguments—many of which are put forward by front organisations funded by the tobacco industry—that further smoking regulation would be the “nail in the coffin” for small businesses, but that is not so. As the hon. Member for Harrow East mentioned, a recent survey commissioned by Action on Smoking and Health found that small tobacco retailers in the UK support further measures to reduce the harm of tobacco, including increasing the age of sale from 18 to 21, mandating a licence to sell tobacco and requiring tobacco companies to pay for services to help smokers to quit. John McClurey, a retired local retailer from Newcastle said, “Tobacco is a burden” to small businesses. The Government could help to lift that burden and charge the tobacco companies to do so.
In my last speech on smoking in Westminster Hall, I again stressed the need for a levy on the tobacco companies, but Ministers were reluctant. The new Minister will want to take action in this space. As we all know, cash will be tight and the Budget in two weeks’ time will be difficult, so he can earn himself brownie points by requiring the industry that makes billions in profits while killing our people to pay up instead. It needs to pay, because more than 4,000 people died prematurely from smoking in the north-east alone last year, with 30 times as many suffering disease and disability caused by smoking.
Going hand in hand with the personal suffering caused by smoking is the economic cost to our already disadvantaged communities. In their election manifesto, the Government claimed:
“We are committed to reducing health inequality.”
Why, then, are there such pronounced inequalities? In the north-east, 42% of smoking households are in poverty and tobacco spending accounts for a higher share of gross disposable household income per head than in any other UK region or nation. Please do not give me the argument that if people are poor, they should give up their fags. Smoking is an addiction and they need help to quit. Ending smoking in such communities would not just benefit the health and wellbeing of individuals but inject money into local economies that was previously going up in smoke.
The Minister will know that, at the current rate of decline, poorer communities risk being left behind as we move towards the hoped-for smokefree 2030. It will not happen in the communities to which I have referred without robust action. Most of the quitting has been done by people from better-off communities, and the benefits have largely accrued to those communities. In 2019, fewer than one in 10 professional and managerial workers smoked—well on the way to the smoke-free target of less than 5%—compared with nearly one in four workers in routine and manual occupations.
Half the difference in life expectancy between rich and poor is due to smoking, which means that the scope for reducing health inequalities related to social position is limited, unless the many smokers in lower social positions can succeed in stopping smoking. Smoking is linked to almost every indicator of disadvantage. Those overlap different communities, so smokers in routine and manual occupations, or who are unemployed, are also more likely to be living in social housing and to be diagnosed with mental health conditions.
There is a clear need for a new tobacco control plan that targets investment and enhanced support at disadvantaged smokers, wherever they are. As long as smoking remains the norm in some communities, not only will it be harder for smokers to quit, but smoking will continue to be transmitted from one generation to the next. The evidence shows that most people who smoke started as children. Prevention is key, so what will the Government do to reduce the appeal of cigarettes?