Smokefree 2030 — [Caroline Nokes in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 26th April 2022.

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Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East 9:30 am, 26th April 2022

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. Vaping has its purpose, which is to encourage people to quit smoking and take up vaping. I am concerned that people may take up vaping and then escalate to smoking. We do not yet have medical evidence on the long-term effects of vaping on health, so I am cautious. Clearly, it is better to vape than smoke, but let us not encourage people to take up vaping as an alternative to stopping smoking completely.

The all-party group has encouraged the “polluter pays” approach. The situation is very frustrating. The Government recognised in the Green Paper three years ago that budgets are tight and new sources of funding are needed. As recommended by the all-party parliamentary group, which I chair, the Government agreed to consider the “polluter pays” approach to funding. They also acknowledged that there were precedents, and that the approach had been taken by other countries, such as France and the USA.

Only months after the consultation closed in October 2019, the pandemic struck and put the prevention strategy on the back burner. It soon became clear that an effective prevention strategy was essential to build back better from the pandemic. It is also essential to deliver on the Conservative manifesto commitments to level up, reduce inequality and increase healthy life expectancy by five years. Those commitments are baked into the levelling-up White Paper and, the Government have said, will be enshrined in statute.

On the anniversary of the Green Paper’s publication, on 22 July 2020, the all-party group held a roundtable to examine the actions needed to deliver the smokefree ambition. The then Public Health Minister, my hon. Friend Jo Churchill, and her opposite number, Alex Norris, were the keynote speakers. The Minister gave her commitment that the Department would continue to explore further funding mechanisms with the Treasury, as had been promised in the Green Paper.

On 30 March, the former Public Health Minister, my hon. Friend Steve Brine, challenged why the commitment to consider a “polluter pays” approach had not been fulfilled. The response at the Dispatch Box from the Health Minister, my hon. Friend Edward Argar, was:

“My understanding—although my recollection may fail me, so I caveat my comment with that—is that this was initially looked at that stage, but was not proceeded with.”—[Official Report, 30 March 2022; Vol. 711, c. 867.]

My hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood might like to check his recollection. The all-party group on smoking and health, following its initial recommendations, put forward detailed proposals to Government in its June 2021 report about how a “polluter pays” levy could operate. I shared a copy of the report with Health Ministers at that time and wrote to the Secretary of State in July 2021, and again in December, asking for a meeting to discuss the levy. In September, I wrote to the Chancellor about the proposals. However, to date I have not had the courtesy of a reply to any of those letters.

If the “polluter pays” levy has been seriously looked at and a decision has been taken not to proceed, that was certainly not communicated to MPs or the all-party parliamentary group. That is precisely why officers of the APPG tabled amendments to the Health and Care Bill calling for a consultation on the levy. The amendments would not have committed the Government to going ahead, but would have ensured that they fulfilled their commitment to consider a “polluter pays” approach and that our proposals get the consideration they deserve. Our amendments were carefully considered by the other place and passed by a majority of 59—the greatest defeat the Government suffered on the Health and Care Bill. However, to the great disappointment of the APPG, the Government opted to oppose our amendments when they returned to the Commons for consideration. That leaves us without a mechanism for funding the smokefree 2030 ambition, with only eight years to go.

It appears that when the noble Lords met Ministers and Treasury officials to discuss the amendments, it was the Treasury, not the Department of Health and Social Care, that objected to the proposal to consult on a levy—not to introduce one, but to consult on the principle. The Treasury has a philosophical aversion to anything that smacks of hypothecation—raising funds to be put to specific purposes. Its preference is for funds raised to go into one big pot—the Consolidated Fund, from which all Government spending flows—that it controls and allocates, thereby giving it ultimate control. However, there are already numerous exceptions where hypothecation has been justified. One is the health and social care levy, which has just come into force. Another is the pharmaceutical pricing scheme, which the Department of Health and Social Care uses to raise funds for the NHS and provides a model for how our proposals could be implemented.

The noble Lord Stevens, formerly chief executive of the NHS, pointed out that the pharmaceutical pricing scheme was put in place by a Conservative Government in 1957 and has been sustained ever since with the support of Conservative, Labour and coalition Governments. He also said—and who could disagree?—that if it is deemed appropriate to have a form of price and profit regulation for the medicines industry, which delivers products that are essential for life saving, it is not much of a stretch to think that an equivalent mechanism might be used for an industry whose products are discretionary and life-destroying. I completely agree with him on that approach.

The Government already accept the principle that the polluter should pay to fix the damage they do. The extended producer responsibility scheme, which comes into force in 2024, is another good example. It requires producers of packaging waste to pay for its collection and recycling. Lord Greenhalgh, the Housing Minister, said:

“The reality is that we cannot keep looking to the Treasury to keep bailing everybody out—we have to get the polluter to pay.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 5 January 2022; Vol. 817, c. 566.]

I could not agree more, and that principle applies even more strongly to smoking, which, as the chief medical officer pointed out, is a deadly addiction created and marketed by companies for profit.

There were objections because we were part of the European Union, but when speaking for the Government on Report in the House of Lords, the noble Lord Howe stated:

“the tobacco industry is already required to make a significant contribution to public finances through tobacco duty, VAT and corporation tax.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 16 March 2022; Vol. 820, c. 297.]

However—this is the key point—tobacco companies pass on the cost of tax increases to smokers, which means that it is not the tobacco industry that contributes to the public finances but ordinary smokers, who have little choice but to buy cigarettes to maintain their deadly addiction. Indeed, when HM Treasury consulted on and rejected a levy in 2015, it was on the grounds that it would add an extra tax burden to smokers. That may have been true in 2015, but it is not the case today.

In 2015, we could not prevent tobacco manufacturers from passing the costs on to consumers because we were in the European Union. We are no longer part of the European Union, and therefore by capping tobacco prices and controlling profits, the Government can ensure that tobacco manufacturers bear the full cost of the levy, helping incentivise the industry to move out of combustible products and make smoking obsolete by 2030. I can think of few better Brexit dividends than making tobacco companies pay for the damage they do.

To quote my noble Friend and fellow APPG officer Lord Young of Cookham, speaking in the other place, our proposed levy will allow the Government to

“put the financial burden firmly where it belongs, on the polluter—the tobacco manufacturer—and not the polluted—the smoker.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 16 March 2022; Vol. 820, c. 290.]

The reality is that this levy could raise £700 million a year from the profits of the tobacco companies—money that could be applied to smoking cessation services.

There is public support for this measure. It has been endorsed by more than 70 health organisations, including Cancer Research UK, Asthma + Lung UK, the British Heart Foundation, the Royal College of Physicians and the Health Foundation. It is also supported by three quarters of the public, including those who voted Conservative in the 2019 election, with fewer than one in 10 being opposed to the levy. What could be better than introducing a tax that the public support?

If we want to achieve a smokefree 2030, it is vital that we tackle high rates of smoking among our most deprived communities, pregnant women and people with mental health conditions. As the Government have said, this will be “extremely challenging” and cannot be achieved on the cheap. Health Ministers in both Houses have said that they do not want to prejudge the review, and therefore could not accept amendments calling for a consultation on a levy. However, as I have said, that review will report very shortly—in the middle of next month—and the discussions I have had with the chairman of the review make it very clear that the measures he will be recommending will need investment, and will be radical.

Once Javed Khan has reported back to the Government, there will need to be serious consideration of how the funding to deliver the smokefree 2030 ambition can be found. That will need to be done in parallel with decisions about what interventions are needed, as interventions cost money and can be delivered only if the funding is found. Pressure on budgets has only worsened since 2019, with the covid-19 pandemic wreaking havoc on our nation’s health and on Government finances. The Government made it very clear in the spending review that there is no new money for public health, so an alternative source of funding is urgently needed. With only eight years to go before we reach 2030, the Government need to decide where that money is coming from.

The existing funds are not sufficient, and our proposals provide a new source of funding in addition to tobacco taxes. If the Government are unwilling to accept our proposals, they must come up with an alternative solution that will match the scale of their ambition. As such, my question to my hon. Friend the Minister is this: if the Javed Khan review recommends a levy, will she commit to meet with us as APPG officers and with independent experts to discuss our proposals for a “polluter pays” levy to provide the investment that is needed to deliver the Government’s smokefree ambition?

My final point is that this review also needs to look at shisha tobacco, chewing tobacco and snus. Unfortunately, those areas are completely unregulated at the moment, but are extremely damaging to people’s health. I look forward to hearing the contributions of other Members and of the Front Benchers.