Finance (No. 2) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:30 pm on 18th May 2023.
Clause 319 implements changes announced at the spring Budget 2023 concerning tobacco duty rates. The duty charge on all tobacco products will rise in line with the tobacco duty escalator, with additional increases being made for hand-rolling tobacco and to the minimum excise tax on cigarettes. Smoking rates in the UK are falling, but they are still too high. Around 13% of adults are smokers. Smoking remains the biggest cause of preventable illness and premature deaths in the UK, killing around 100,000 people a year, and about half of all long-term users.
We have plans to reduce smoking rates further, towards our Smokefree 2030 ambition. To realise that ambition, the Minister for Primary Care and Public Health recently announced the next steps to help people quit smoking. Our policy of maintaining high duty rates for tobacco products will support the Government’s plan to reduce smoking to improve public health. According to the charity Action on Smoking and Health, smoking costs society £21 billion a year in England, as a result of sickness, disability and premature death, including £2.2 billion in costs to the NHS for treating disease caused by smoking.
At the spring Budget, the Chancellor announced that the Government will increase tobacco duty in line with the escalator. Clause 319 thus specifies that the duty charged on all tobacco products will rise by 2% above the retail prices index level of inflation. In addition, duty on hand-rolling tobacco increases by a further 6% above RPI inflation. The clause also increases the minimum excise tax—the minimum amount of duty to be paid on a pack of cigarettes—by an additional 1% to 3% above RPI inflation. The new tobacco rates will be treated as having taken effect from 6 pm on the day they were announced, which was
Recognising the potential interactions between tobacco duty rates and the illicit market, the Government intend to introduce tougher sanctions later this year to punish those involved in the illegal tobacco market. The Government also recently announced that HMRC and Border Force will publish an updated strategy to tackle illicit tobacco later this year.
This clause will continue our tried and tested policy of using high duty rates on tobacco products to make tobacco less affordable, and will continue the reduction in smoking prevalence towards a smoke-free 2030, as well as reducing the burden of smoking on our public services.
On the Government’s ambition to reduce smoking, I briefly want to mention heating tobacco, in preference, I might say, to vaping.
The only problem with vaping, of course, is that there is absolutely no evidence of any health benefits or health risks. However, with heating tobacco, there is a huge amount of evidence, particularly from Japan, about its health benefits, in helping people to reduce and stop smoking. I just wondered whether the Minister has had any indication that heating tobacco has been looked at as an alternative to vaping. Of course, adding extra duties to it is an inhibitor to people reducing or stopping smoking.
We are obviously dealing with a product that kills and, as the Minister said, cost the public purse £21 billion a year. That is why there is cross-party support for the tobacco duty escalator, which the Minister just outlined, explaining how it applies to current costs. It will increase the average price of a packet of cigarettes by 95p and the average price of a 30-gram packet of hand-rolling tobacco by £1.75. I have to say that hand-rolling tobacco is the tobacco product that is smuggled most, so we have to be particularly aware of that. The Minister will know that, if he has been to see Border Force. A 10-gram packet of cigars will go up by 48p, a 30-gram packet of pipe tobacco—again, that is a tobacco product that is often smuggled—by 63p and a typical 6-gram pack of tobacco for heating by 24p.
The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that these increases will raise the amount of revenue taken by tobacco from £10 billion last year to £10.4 billion next year, which will actually return it to where it was the year before. Clearly, that is just an OBR estimate, but I presume that it is based on the work of and information given by Border Force and HMRC. If we are trying to get to a tobacco-free place by 2030, surely we need more progress than this kind of stasis on receipts. I wonder whether the Minister might wish to comment on that.
Clearly, the innovation of vaping is helping many people to give up smoking, but there are unknown health risks to vaping. In particular, would he comment on the way that vapes are being marketed at the moment in our society, with sweer flavours like bubble gum and melon, in a way that is clearly aimed at children. I do not think we should tolerate that. Will he give us a view rather than just saying that vaping is better than smoking cigarettes, which is clearly true?
What that does not include is the alarming rise in vaping among children, which is addicting them to nicotine in a way that might have difficult implications for public expenditure, health and their wellbeing if we allow it to continue. Will the Minister give us at least an early indication of his Department’s thinking on this juxtaposition?
Some organisations that do not think we are going far enough fast enough to eliminate tobacco as a habit to get to a smoke-free 2030 are proposing capping net profit margins on UK tobacco sales to no more than 10%—currently it is 50%—in line with the average for UK manufacturing. That could directly raise £700 million, which could fund the Khan review proposals, which contained a more radical way of trying to get us to the smoke-free target. Is the Department considering something more radical on revenue raising from tobacco products, given that progress has stalled?
As the Minister mentioned, and it is no surprise that he did, as soon as the tax goes up on tobacco products, the financial incentives to smuggle get greater. He mentioned there would be another smuggling strategy, which presumably will try to prevent the complete loss of revenue and lack of any capacity to prove whether the products being smuggled are even vaguely acceptable, because they are adulterated by all sorts, including brick dust. Will the Minister give us more information about what effect that will have on smuggling, because it is a constant problem?
There was quite a bit in there, but a lot of it was related, so I will do my best to address those points. First, to my right hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley, I will need to educate myself a little better on heated tobacco, but if he would like to write to me, I will provide a more detailed response. I will address his comments on vaping, together with those of the hon. Member for Wallasey, in a moment.
The hon. Member for Wallasey mentioned hand-rolling tobacco and the connection to illicit trade. I want to clarify for the Committee that the fact we are raising the rate so significantly—6% plus RPI—is to help hand-rolling tobacco prices catch up with cigarettes to help us towards our Smokefree 2030 ambition. I wanted to provide that clarity because I did not in my opening remarks. The hon. Lady alluded to various calls to do more and to raise prices even more, and she referenced the OBR’s estimates for that. I will take that, together with the point she raised about the Khan review recommendations. We have to get the balance right with this taxation, as the hon. Lady said. If it is too high, it is likely to push people into the illicit trade. That is a known fact. That is one of the reasons why we have not proceeded with the 30% suggestion from the Khan review. At every review, we are trying to get that balance while also seeking to improve our enforcement action on illicit trade.
I referred to the updated review from HMRC and Border Force that is coming out later this year. I do not want to pre-empt what it is going to say or what it may achieve, but I certainly await it with eager anticipation. I would also add that the Finance Act 2022 included new sanctions, such as enhanced penalties, to strengthen the agencies’ enforcement abilities. That is a key focus of the Government right now.
The hon. Member for Wallasey talked about vaping. This is obviously a Department of Health and Social Care lead. Vaping is a matter that is discussed frequently in the House. It is an important tool to help people move away from tobacco smoking. She referred to the increased use of vaping by children and the impact on the environment. Those are important points. As I mentioned, the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend Neil O’Brien, is very engaged in this matter and has launched a call for evidence on the use of vapes by children. We will set out our response as soon as that is published.
The hon. Member for Wallasey also mentioned the policy idea of a cap on net profits. Of course, we keep all taxes under review, and new ideas are always considered. I am not well versed in the merits or pitfalls of that specific proposal, but I am very happy to look at it in due course.