It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes.
I thank the hon. Members for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) and for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy) for securing this important debate. I well remember, as the hon. Lady will remember, that she had this debate in the main Chamber under the covid regulations. I was happy to assist in supporting her at that time, and my support is the same now.
As we turn our attention to the rebuilding of public health following the covid-19 pandemic, tackling smoking must be among our top priorities. Smoking is the leading cause of premature death, killing some 2,300 people in Northern Ireland each year—it is a devolved matter, but I think these figures are quite shocking—with 30 times as many suffering serious diseases and disabilities caused by smoking.
Ms Nokes, I have never had a wish to smoke. I can well recall the first time that I did, with my grandfather, back in the ’60s. He smoked Gallahers; there were no filters on them. I always admired my grandfather, and I said to him one day, “Granda, can I have a smoke of that cigarette?” I pestered and pestered him, and then, one day, he says, “Now, take one, and take a deep breath,” and I did. As a wee six-year-old, I was violently sick. I was green at the gills. In those days, we had—if I can say it—a po under the bed. I was sick into that, and I never had any wish, ever, to pursue the smoking of a cigarette ever since. It left a lasting impression. Maybe that is what we need to do for the young people of today. It is a bit drastic, perhaps, but none the less, it had a very sobering effect on me.
Achieving a smokefree 2030 would reduce the pressure on NHS services at a time when they are under the most severe strain in living memory. However, analysis by Cancer Research UK shows that at current rates of decline, Northern Ireland will not achieve the smokefree ambition of smoking rates of 5% or less until a decade after England—not until the late 2040s—with our most deprived populations not being smokefree until after 2050. We have really big issues to sort out in Northern Ireland regarding that.
While Northern Ireland and the devolved nations hold responsibility for our own public policies, the Government in Westminster maintain responsibility for important UK-wide policies. I therefore ask the Minister—as others have in relation to Wales—what discussions have taken place with the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Minister, Robin Swann?
There is substantial research supporting the implementation of health warnings on cigarettes and cigarette papers, and that is clearly under consideration in Canada, Australia and Scotland. Such warnings could be implemented by a simple amendment to the Standardised Packaging of Tobacco Products Regulations 2015. Tobacco manufacturers already apply print to cigarette papers, so that would be cheap and easy to implement.
Health warnings, such as “Smoking kills”, have been shown to be effective on billboards and tobacco packs, so why would they not be as effective on cigarette sticks too? Adding warnings to cigarette sticks is important because young people in particular are likely to initiate smoking with individual cigarettes rather than packs. Is that something that the Minister and the Government would be prepared to look at?
Cigarette pack inserts providing health information are not a new idea; they have been required in Canada since 2000. The health messages are effective, and research has been carried out in the UK which supports their use here too. The Government have already acknowledged in the prevention Green Paper that,
“there could be a positive role for inserts in tobacco products giving quitting advice”,
so, again, I look to the Minister for her thoughts on that.
All those measures would be cheap and easy to implement and would benefit all the UK nations. They would also support and reinforce the impact of other measures that require significant investment, such as behaviour change campaigns and stop smoking services. Although the Government opposed the introduction of the measures as amendments to the Health and Care Bill, they did leave the door open—I believe—to considering them when developing the next tobacco control plan. Does the Minister—or the Government—intend to do just that?
I have spoken before in this House about the use of licensing for tobacco retailers. In Northern Ireland, since
Since 2018, we have seen the implementation of a tracking and tracing scheme, which requires every retailer to have an economic operator identifier code. Since leaving the EU—as the hon. Member for Harrow East mentioned—the UK has established and launched its own system, with Northern Ireland operating in the UK and EU systems. That makes it easy for all nations in the UK, including England, to not just implement a retail register scheme, but go further and implement a comprehensive retail licensing scheme. If the Minister can give us some thoughts on that, I would be very pleased.
Retail licensing is the obvious back-up to the tracking and tracing of cigarettes and would help tackle the illicit trade that gives smokers access to cheap tobacco. Those who sell illegal tobacco have no compunction about selling it to children too, so the illegal trade makes it not just less likely that smokers will quit, but more likely that children will start smoking. My hon. Friend Mr Campbell, who is no longer in his place, mentioned that in his intervention on the hon. Member for Harrow East.
I await with interest Javed Khan OBE’s independent review, which is due to be published shortly. I hope it will address this important issue. England remains an outlier on that important measure, which could help tackle illicit trade and protect children from tobacco. We can and must address these issues collectively, bringing knowledge from the nations we represent. I am happy to support the Minister here at Westminster in taking this matter forward and, from a Northern Ireland point of view, it is important that we address these issues together. If we do so, I am confident that we will then deliver a policy that helps not only us, but the constituents we serve.