Tobacco Products (Plain Packaging): 3rd September 2013

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Anna Soubry)
It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I echo the remarks of many speakers by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman)—a long-standing friend, if I may say so—on securing the debate and on his excellent speech. As he knows, I have been called many things, but I have never been called “very libertarian”, and I am still in a state of shock at that description.

I make it clear that I am no great fan or supporter of the nanny state. I do not have a particular problem with standardised packaging, because that does not relate to the nanny state. As we have heard in the many excellent speeches from Members of all parties, the issue is the protection of children, not preventing anybody from smoking or going out to buy cigarettes. It is about protecting young people from the attraction of taking up smoking.

It is important that I declare my interest. My father, a lifelong smoker, died at the age of 56 from lung cancer. I do not think that there was any doubt that that cancer was caused by his lifelong addition to tobacco—to smoking. I say with considerable shame, if I may put it that way, that until just over five years ago, I, too, was a smoker; both my brothers continue to smoke. I am not for one moment saying that if people are not or have not been smokers, they cannot engage in the debate, because that would obviously be complete nonsense, but they have to have been a smoker to understand the perverse psychology of smoking.

We know that 8 million people in this country continue to smoke and that the overwhelming majority of them want to stop. It is an admission of some weakness within us, which I think is the power of nicotine. It is often said that nicotine is more addictive even than heroin. Although I have never directly experienced heroin, when I was a criminal barrister I had enough clients to know how powerful heroin and cocaine are. Goodness me, even they would say that nicotine is a dreadful substance in its addiction. That accounts for why so many smokers, like me, found it so difficult to give up.

I want to make it clear that like so many smokers, I took up smoking before the age of 18. I accept that I sound very weak when I say—this is one of those moments where one almost wants to confess—that the power of the packet had an effect on this 17-year-old from Worksop who was working in a toy shop, which, bizarrely, sold cigarettes in those days. Younger people listening to this debate will be amazed to hear that a toy shop could sell cigarettes, but those were the days.

I have never forgotten the first time that I bought a packet of cigarettes. I deliberately chose a packet of St Moritz because they were green, gorgeous and a symbol of glamour. Do hon. Members remember the madness of those advertisements that talked of the cool fresh mountain air of menthol cigarettes? Those were the days that some of us remember because of our age. I distinctly remember the power of that package. It was the opening of the cellophane and the gold and the silver that was so powerfully important to many people who, as youngsters, took up smoking. I say that to my ​hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) who says that he has never met anyone so drawn; well, he has now, because I am that person, and I am not alone by any means.

Mark Field
There is little doubt that if alcohol were synthesised for the first time today, or if we discovered sugar for the first time, it would be banned. The Minister has made the case about nicotine. Ideally, does she want the product banned? She talked about protecting young people. What age is she talking about? In America, for example, alcohol is banned for anyone under the age of 21. Is that the age she is considering, especially as we could outlaw both tobacco and alcohol at university when people are at an impressionable age?

Anna Soubry
My hon. Friend is most naughty. He asks me in a short period of time, when I have other matters to address, to answer about three or four questions all at once, most of which are completely irrelevant. We cannot say that there is a correlation between alcohol and tobacco; of course there is not. One can enjoy a glass of wine on an occasional basis. Indeed there is evidence that it can help certain people with their health. I am talking about the gentle consumption of alcohol or sugar. Indeed there is nothing wrong with eating sweets for goodness sake or even chips and other fatty substances. It is all a question of how much one eats; it should be part of a sensible and well-balanced diet. There is nothing in support of cigarettes or tobacco. It is about as barmy as saying, “If you want to help yourself after a stressful day, have a fag.” Cigarettes—tobacco—kill people and harm people’s health. Get it!

Alex Cunningham
The Minister is making a tremendous case—a better one than most of us—for standard packaging. Will she therefore persuade the Health Secretary that he does not have to wait for Back Benchers or others to take the matter to the Backbench Business Committee to get a vote on the Floor of the House of Commons? He can actually crack on now with tremendous support from across the House.

Anna Soubry
I suppose that I am sort of grateful for that intervention. It was not the most helpful, but it was a fair one and it is a good point that needs addressing. I have no difficulty in waiting for the evidence to emerge from Australia. It is on that point that I agree with the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley). However, it is the only point on which we agree on this matter. It is important that we consider the evidence. Of course we know that the Irish Government have also said that they want to introduce this measure. Again, we will wait and see. It is no simple matter to introduce standardised packaging. There will be many challenges that the Irish will face in their attempts. It is right and fair that we wait to see all of that as it develops.

Barbara Keeley

Anna Soubry
May I make some progress, because it is really important that I make the matter clear? The coalition Government have made no final decision. As I have said, we wait to see the evidence as it emerges from both Ireland and Australia. It is important to say that ​standardised packaging is no silver bullet. There is no simple solution to the problem of persuading both the remaining 20% of the population to give up smoking and our youngsters not to smoke.

I want to deal if I may with some of the excellent points that have been made. I, like many other Members, have talked about the power of the package. The hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) helpfully brought in some packets. He mentioned the cigarettes that are deliberately targeted at young women. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) asks why children, in the face of the overwhelming evidence and the health messages, take up smoking. He is right to say that we need to do more research. We know many things.

We know, for instance, the power of parents. If a child is brought up by parents who smoke, they are likely to smoke because they will see it as the norm. One of the great benefits of the legislation that was introduced by the previous Administration—I pay full credit to them for introducing that ban on smoking in open places—was that it made smoking less socially acceptable. Effectively, it turned many of us into modern-day lepers. If we wanted to smoke, we were reduced to standing outside, ostracised from our workmates, and that was a powerful reason why so many of us gave up smoking. Many of us remember with shame, as I do, sitting in restaurants thinking that we had some God-given right to smoke next to people who rightly found it deeply offensive, and who were trying to enjoy their meals. It is astonishing to look back at films and television programmes of only a few years ago to see how acceptable smoking was and how the previous Parliament changed that.

I absolutely agree with all those who are trying to nail the falsehood in two important parts of this argument about standardised packaging. The first is whether it is plain. I concede that one of the great failings of this debate is to explain what we mean by “standardised”. That goes back to the point that was inaccurately made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North. I never said that packaging would be glamorous or glitzy, but that, as I think my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East also tried to say, under the regulation and legislation ​holograms can be put on standardised packaging—not to be attractive but as part of the argument against the claim that anybody will be able to counterfeit it.

Far from being a counterfeiter’s charter and dream, standardised packaging is a counterfeiter’s nightmare. I wish that I had with me some of the packets that have been produced by Australia. If we had them, Members would see that they are far from plain. On the contrary, they have colour in them, but they have the standardisation, which takes away this incredibly powerful marketing tool and the attraction for young people.

Barbara Keeley
On the point about waiting for the evidence, it is not 20% of people who smoke in Salford but 25%, and much more in some areas, and it is 1,000 children. As we wait, 1,000 children every year will start smoking in Salford. Why are we waiting?

Anna Soubry
I think I have explained why we have waited. My understanding of the statistics is that it is 20%, but it differs in different parts of the country. I also want to make the point that the Government have not stepped away from taking action against the harmful effects of tobacco. We have a tobacco control plan for England that sets out our national ambitions and our comprehensive evidence-based strategy of national and local actions to achieve them, including high-profile marketing campaigns. Our Stoptober campaign, which was hugely successful last year and which we will be running again this year, provided help and assistance to smokers, the majority of whom want to quit.

I also want to pay tribute to local authorities, which now have responsibility for public health. I have met members and representatives from councils in the north-east who are doing some terrific work persuading people to stop smoking or not to take it up, and that shows good local action.

As ever, the clock is against me, but I hope that I have made the Government’s position absolutely clear. I congratulate again everybody who has spoken in this debate. My own views are clear, but it is right to wait to see the evidence. I assure Members that the wise words from so many different parties today will be taken back to the Government and will be listened to. It is to be hoped that in due time, standardised packaging will be introduced.