On Thursday 29 June 2017, in the run up to the tenth anniversary of smokefree legislation in England, Lord Rennard gave a speech in the House of Lords calling for the publication of a new Tobacco Control Plan. This was a part of the Queen’s Speech debate and is republished below.
My Lords, in the recent general election we heard quite a lot about the cost of trying to sustain our health and social care systems, but too little about action to make people healthier. The gracious Speech did not provide much hope that the new Government recognise that this is an important and continuing priority. I will focus my remarks on tobacco control. I speak as a former trustee of Action on Smoking and Health, and I am currently a vice-chair of the All-Party Group on Smoking and Health.
Those of us most concerned about this issue have recently had two things to celebrate. The first is the decline in smoking prevalence, which is shown by new data to be just 15.5% of adults in England — the lowest level on record. This is a huge achievement and the effort to bring it about will save many lives over the coming years. Particularly encouraging is the fact that the greatest decline in smoking rates has been among young adults aged 18 to 24. The reduction in smoking rates is testament to the success of the comprehensive approach adopted by previous Governments.
Secondly, in England, we are about to celebrate the 10th anniversary of smoke-free legislation, with Scotland having bravely led the way some two years earlier. This legislation has had a tremendous impact on public health, including significant declines in heart attacks and strokes, and hospital admissions for asthma attacks in children. The passage of the legislation required the efforts of many people to combat the fierce resistance and fundamental dishonesty of the tobacco industry. Since that time, a cross-party approach to tackling tobacco has continued to do much, for example in passing legislation to prohibit smoking in cars with children and putting cigarettes in drab-coloured, plain packaging.
Every step forward has been resisted, but tough tobacco legislation is no longer seen as something for which the tobacco industry can win significant support to block or delay for very long. A public survey for Action on Smoking and Health showed that 76% of respondents supported government action to limit smoking or wanted more to be done. Against that backdrop, the UK has widely been acknowledged as a world leader in tobacco control, and in 2015 received the prestigious American Cancer Society’s tri-annual award for exemplary leadership by a government department, as well as the World Health Organization’s World No Tobacco Day medal last year. The Government then committed £15 million to support implementation of the World Health Organization’s international tobacco treaty, the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, in poorer countries between now and 2021.
That is a record to be proud of, but we cannot be complacent about the issue of tobacco control. Despite our successes over the last decade, smoking remains a public health epidemic. Every day, hundreds of children start smoking, and tobacco still kills around 80,000 people in this country every year. Smoking is responsible for half the difference in life expectancy between rich people and poor people — a difference of nine years — and that is a burning injustice. The smoking rate among people with a mental health condition is 40% and smoking is the leading modifiable risk factor for stillbirth and sudden infant death. Yet 18 months after the expiry of the tobacco control plan for England, no new plan has been put in its place. That is in contravention of our obligations as a party to the international tobacco treaty, which requires us to have a comprehensive strategy in place.
The obligations are based on good evidence that it is through such strategies that countries can be most effective in driving down smoking prevalence. We have been very effective in the last decade, with a comprehensive approach to tackling tobacco. If we are to be effective in the next decade, the Government urgently need to publish their next plan, with ambitious new targets to reduce health inequalities and lead us towards a smoke-free future.
In answer to a Question from me on 23 February, and further questions from across the House, the Minister made some very encouraging remarks about tobacco control. He said that a new tobacco control plan would be published shortly and that it was in an advanced state of preparation. In an earlier debate in the other place in December 2015, the former Health Minister, Jane Ellison, committed the Government to publishing a new strategy in summer 2016. It is now summer 2017. A year and around 80,000 more deaths from smoking-related illnesses later, we have waited long enough.
Earlier this week, the Government reiterated the commitment made before the election to publishing a new plan “shortly”, so I hope that today the Minister can go further and confirm a date for publication of a new tobacco control plan before the House rises for the Summer Recess.