The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health and Social Care (Lord Kamall) (Con)
My Lords, I add my congratulations to my noble friend on progressing his Private Member’s Bill to this stage and on securing this important debate.
Over the past two decades the UK has introduced a range of public health interventions and a strong regulatory framework to help smokers quit, and to protect future generations from using tobacco. Thanks to these, smoking rates in England are down to a record low of 13.9%, from 19.8% in 2011. If we go back even further, we see that the smoking rate was at 45% in the 1970s. As the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, has said, these reductions have been cross-party; Governments of all colours have tried to tackle this issue.
Those reductions are something we should be very proud of but not complacent about. While we celebrate this success, we recognise that there are still 6 million smokers in England, with smoking remaining one of the biggest causes of preventable mortality and, as a number of noble Lords have acknowledged, one of the largest drivers of health disparities. One of the reasons why I am very pleased that we now have the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities is that there will be a laser-like approach in the attempt to tackle these disparities.
Smoking rates still range from 23.4% in Blackpool to 8% in Richmond upon Thames. In addition, smoking rates vary significantly among certain groups. Nearly one in 10 pregnant women still smoke, increasing the risk of health problems for their babies. The Government are determined to reduce smoking rates in groups that smoke disproportionately, as well as across the board—so, work is going on not just in respect of pregnant women but elsewhere. For example, we know that 23% of routine and manual workers smoke, while the rate among people with long-term mental health conditions is nearly 26%. That is why there is so much to do. We have to make sure that we understand those parts of communities where we can, laser-like, focus our action. That is why the Government have set the bold ambition for England to be smoke free by 2030.
The Government recognise the good intentions behind the Bill. I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham not only for the Bill but for his long-standing commitment to encouraging smokers to quit. My noble friend himself has told me about his work in the 1970s but also as a Health Minister in the 1980s. Let no one be in any doubt that the Government are clear that we strongly support measures to stop people smoking but also to educate current smokers of its dangers. We have already introduced a number of measures, such as graphic health warnings on tobacco packaging and information on packs giving further advice on how to quit.
While we sympathise with the aims of the Bill, we believe that policy should be evidence-led. It is therefore vital that we conduct further research to build up a strong evidence base to support measures before bringing them forward. To date, sadly, no country has introduced such a measure so there is very little evidence so far on its impact in supporting smokers to quit, compared with other measures we are looking at. Several other measures have been tried in other countries—for example, warnings inside the pack as well as outside—and there are a number of other issues we are examining.
The Government are in the process of developing a new tobacco control plan that will include an even sharper focus on tackling health disparities and will support the Government’s levelling-up agenda. We want to explore a broad range of new regulatory measures to support our ambition to be smoke free by 2030. So, I reassure noble Lords that we will be reviewing this proposal as part of that work.
I turn to some of the specific questions that were asked. A number of noble Lords asked about the tobacco control plan. Rather than implementing blanket measures that may not always reach some of the communities that need to be reached, we want to ensure that the plan has an even sharper focus on disparities and that it supports the Government’s levelling-up agenda. We need bold but impactful proposals. With the establishment of the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities, we are going to draw on its advice on how to address the high levels of smoking among some of these groups, and harness that advice to develop robust and effective proposals that will ensure that our plan delivers the smoke-free 2030 that this country deserves.
We are developing policy for the tobacco control plan and intend to publish it next year. There is a current tobacco control plan, which runs until 2022. We hope to include a number of measures that focus on health disparities and groups where smoking rates are not falling fast enough. I have already mentioned pregnant smokers and smokers with mental health conditions, but that also includes smokers in many deprived parts of the country.
We were asked about the amendments to the Health and Care Bill. We were grateful for the suggested amendments, which show support for strong tobacco control, but once again we need to see the evidence and make sure that such measures are targeted at groups we want to encourage, as well as more generally. At this stage we do not believe we should accept the amendments but, as I have said, next year we will be publishing our new tobacco control plan, since the current one runs until 2022.
Some of these examples include stop smoking services, which we have found produce high quit rates of 59% after four weeks. Since 2000, they have helped nearly 5 million people to quit. We have also protected a public health grant over the course of the spending review to ensure that local authorities can continue to invest in stop smoking services, because they have been seen to be successful. As long as they are successful, they will continue to be part of our armoury.
The noble Lord, Lord Moylan, asked about evidence. The Office for Health Improvement and Disparities continues to monitor developments in tobacco control across the world. We share our knowledge with international partners and draw on their evidence-led experiences to make sure that we are introducing effective measures, rather than just introducing measures we feel might work without evidence.
The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, talked about youth smoking. He is absolutely right, but youth smoking rates continue to decline, and they are currently at their lowest rate on record. In 2018, 5% of 15-year olds were regular smokers, 2% of 11 to 15 year-olds were regular smokers, and 16% had never smoked. While the youth rates are declining, we should not be complacent. We know that smoking remains an addiction largely taken up in childhood, with the majority of smokers starting as teenagers and then becoming addicted. We want to build on that recent success and protect young people from harmful tobacco, and we have an area of focus targeted at that.
My noble friend Lord Naseby talked about the tobacco levy. We recognise that the tobacco industry is already required to make a contribution to the public finances through tobacco duty, VAT and corporation tax—in many ways, it pays our wages. The department will continue to work with HMT regarding tobacco taxation and revenue funding. This includes reviewing options such as the future levy, but we want to make sure that it is an effective way to raise additional funds to support stop smoking services.
The noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, was very honest in her appraisal of her ability to stop smoking in her family. But she made some interesting points, not only about having failed to prevent her family smoking but about whether young people will read the warnings on the cigarettes. I think that is a point we have to look at. Will they be dismissed, just as the effectiveness of the warnings on the outside has waned over time? Will the same thing happen here?