Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:43 pm on 3rd November 2022.
It is a pleasure to speak in this important debate. It has been a small but, I think, perfectly formed debate, in which there has been a large degree of consensus throughout the House on our ambition for England to be smokefree by 2030.
I commend Bob Blackman not just for the work he has done on this subject over a long period, particularly in the all-party parliamentary group, but for the way in which he introduced the motion, which, as my hon. Friend Alex Cunningham observed, enabled us to say, “We agree with Bob.” I congratulate my hon. Friend for his own work on the subject. I thank Maggie Throup for her contribution, and also thank her for her time as the public health Minister: I used to enjoy our debates across the Dispatch Box, and I wish her well in whatever comes next.
The Health and Social Care Front Bench is a bit like a whirling dervish at the moment. We had the hon. Member for Erewash a few months ago, then Dr Johnson—she was in post for just six weeks, and I want to thank her as well for the work she did in that short time—and now we have the new Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Neil O’Brien, whom I welcome. Let me also echo the words of the hon. Member for Harrow East in wishing my hon. Friend—indeed, my friend—Mary Kelly Foy a speedy recovery after her hospital treatment.
It is now nearly five months since the release of the Khan review. Both the hon. Member for Erewash and I spoke at the launch, and I think the review was universally welcomed. It was generally agreed that we must move apace in ensuring that we meet the ambition of a smokefree 2030. In those five months we have had three different Health Secretaries, and we are now on our third Prime Minister. I do not blame the current Minister for all this chopping and changing, but it is little wonder that the Government have failed to find time to respond to the Khan review amid the endless changes. I hope that when the Minister responds to the debate, we will finally be given some clarity. I hope he will set out a timetable for when the Government will respond to the Khan review, and will outline which measures in the review itself the Government are currently considering. I also hope he will be able to reassure Members on both sides of the House that the Government stand by their commitment to create a smokefree England by 2030.
The importance of that smokefree 2030 cannot be overstated. Tobacco is the primary driver of health inequalities throughout the United Kingdom. In 2019-20, there were more than half a million hospital admissions and more than 74,000 deaths attributed to smoking. My constituency of Denton and Reddish straddles two local authorities, Tameside and Stockport in Greater Manchester. The public health charity Action on Smoking and Health—ASH—estimates that smoking costs those two local authorities about £172 million in lost productivity and health and social care costs. That is unsustainable.
Behind those stark economic figures, however, are individual lives that are being harmed or lost as a direct result of smoking. We know that more than 50% of people over the age of 16 who smoke say they want to quit—in fact, many say that they wish they had never started in the first place—and it is therefore imperative that the Government support them in their efforts to do so. Unfortunately, stop smoking services have suffered a 33% real-terms cut in their budgets since 2015-16. There is a drastic need for that to be reversed.
The Government have made a commitment to a smoke- free 2030, which is commendable. We support them, and we want them to succeed. However, a commitment alone is not enough: we want to see action to get there, and we need to see that action fast. The former Secretary of State had an interesting relationship with the tobacco industry, to put it mildly. She had previously accepted hospitality from the industry, and had voted against several sensible public health tobacco measures. During her brief but eventful tenure, it was reported that she had scrapped the Government’s proposals to publish a tobacco control plan, as well as the health disparities White Paper. I asked the Minister about the White Paper earlier this week during Health questions, and received something of a non-answer. I will therefore ask my questions again today, in the hope of getting some clarity. Are the Government planning to scrap the health disparities White Paper—yes or no? Are they planning to scrap the tobacco control plan—yes or no? We need transparency, as there seems to be an information vacuum in the Department of Health and Social Care. If the Government are indeed rowing back on their public health responsibilities, they should have the guts to say so, and face scrutiny for that decision.
By doing everything from inviting tobacco lobbyists into the heart of No. 10 to accepting gifts from the big four tobacco firms, the Government have shown themselves too willing to ally themselves to an industry that is damaging the health of the nation. However, the damage done by the tobacco industry is not confined to public health. Recent analysis conducted by The Daily Telegraph has revealed that the Russian Government have received almost £7 billion from tobacco companies in taxes since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. That is despite several tobacco companies pledging to cut ties with Russia. I would be interested to know what the Minister makes of this revelation. Will the Government make it crystal clear to tobacco companies that they are expected to follow the lead of those companies that have ceased trading with Putin’s tyrannical regime?
Labour Members believe that if we want to ease pressure on our NHS and improve public health, we need to get serious about prevention. That means ensuring equitable access to smoking cessation services, and taking on tobacco companies that profit at the expense of public health. Smoking prevalence is not a problem that the Government can ignore and hope will magically go away. As a Greater Manchester MP, I have been really encouraged by Greater Manchester’s “Make Smoking History” strategy. If the Minister has not looked at that, I encourage him to do so, because it really is best practice. Indeed, it is cited as best practice in a case study in the Khan review.
Greater Manchester’s comprehensive approach to tobacco control means that smokers in Greater Manchester have more offers of support in quitting than ever before. Thanks to the scheme, smoking rates among people in routine and manual jobs have reduced faster in Greater Manchester than in any other region of England. If these strategies can work regionally, they can, with the political willpower, be scaled up to national level.
I urge the Minister to take the brave decisions. They are sometimes tough and often very unpopular with a significant vocal minority of people, but taking those decisions is the right thing to do, as history often shows. Smoking has gone up among young adults aged 18 to 24 in the past three years. To put that in context, in 2007, around 41% of young people said that they had smoked. By 2019, that had fallen to just a quarter, but in the short space from 2019 to 2022, that increased to a third. That is going in the wrong direction. Between 2007 and 2020, smoking fell, as successive Governments really ratcheted up the regulation of smoking and introduced smoke-free laws. They increased the age of sale from 16 to 18; banned the display of tobacco products; introduced standardised packaging and large, graphic health warnings; banned smoking in cars with children; and, lastly, banned menthol in 2020. Those measures worked, but they have to continue, as does the pace of change, if we are to meet the goals of Smokefree 2030.
The last Labour Government implemented one of the biggest and most significant public health interventions in modern political history. I am most proud of it, but it was not popular in all quarters; I was almost banned from holding surgeries at Denton Labour club. It was the ban on indoor smoking. When we go abroad to countries that still have smoking indoors in public places—in bars, restaurants and cafes—we wonder how on earth we put up with that in our country until fairly recently. Absolutely nobody with a modicum of common sense would want to reverse that legislation.
When we were in government, we supported taking the bold steps necessary to protect public health, and many thousands of lives were saved as a result. That is why we want the Government to commit to Smokefree 2030. They will miss that target unless they up the pace of change, accept the recommendations of the Khan review, and legislate to put measures in place. For far too long, public health has been an afterthought, or a battleground on which to have ideological arguments. We have had obesity strategies scrapped, tobacco strategies binned, and health inequalities widened. This neglect cannot continue. We will support the Government in being brave on public health. We will give the Minister the majority he needs, if he does not have one, to pass the right measures in this House. Labour Members will do right by Britain, and encourage the Government to do the same. Be brave, and build a healthier, happier and fairer Britain; we will support you.