HC Deb 28 July 1998 vol 317 cc161-3
8. Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes)

What research he has (a) commissioned and (b) evaluated into the causes of premature deaths each year which can be ascribed to (i) tobacco, (ii) alcohol and (iii) cannabis. [50983]

The Minister for Public Health (Ms Tessa Jowell)

The harmful effects of tobacco are well researched and documented—most recently, by the Scientific Committee on Tobacco and Health. An estimated 120,000 people die every year from smoking or smoking-related causes.

The latest evidence on the harmful effects of alcohol on health was analysed thoroughly in the preparation for the 1995 sensible drinking reports, the recommendations of which we have adopted as continuing policy. It is estimated that between 4,000 and 40,000 people die each year from alcohol misuse.

The harmful effects of smoking cannabis—for example, bronchitis, cancers, short-term memory loss and aggravation of existing mental disorders—are well documented. It is estimated that five people have died in the past four years from cannabis abuse.

Mr. Baker

It is interesting that the one illegal recreational drug of the three is the one that, apparently, caused the fewest deaths. However, will the Minister address a problem that many health professionals have identified? There appears to be a beneficial medicinal use for cannabis, yet at the moment it is improper—indeed, illegal—for health professionals to prescribe cannabis for any purpose. Will the Minister reconsider the matter, to discover whether those who would benefit from the medicinal use of cannabis might be enabled to do so without being criminalised?

Ms Jowell

There are perfectly clear procedures for applying to conduct research to establish the medicinal benefits of cannabis. The Government have absolutely no intention of making the use of cannabis legal, but this is an opportunity for Opposition Front Benchers to clarify their position on the issue, and perhaps for the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) to make clear his position in relation to his recent book, "Saturn's Children", in which he said: Nor are drugs a particularly threatening health problem. The Government disagree.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

Of the 120,000 people who die prematurely from smoking-related diseases each year, 53,000 are over the age of 75. Given that the Minister's Department has stated that life expectancy for men is 75 years, how can those people possibly be described as having died prematurely?

Ms Jowell

I made it clear that, every year, more than 120,000 people die from smoking or smoking-related causes. I did not identify those who died under the age of 75, but, with life expectancy increasing, it is absolutely clear that, for people who smoke, the chances of dying from tobacco or tobacco-related causes are increased by something like 100 per cent. Half of smokers die from causes related directly to smoking.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Does not my hon. Friend recall that tens of thousands of people in this country who suffer from multiple sclerosis, the effects of chemotherapy and glaucoma take cannabis illegally as it provides the best relief from the serious pain that they endure? Why does she continue to condemn those people to dealing in an illegal market where they cannot guarantee the quality or strength of the product—and can only smoke it, which is the most dangerous method of using cannabis?

Did my hon. Friend see the "Watchdog" programme last night, which presented both sides of the argument? It received a massive public reaction, with some 96 per cent. of people voting in favour of the medicinal use of cannabis. When will the Government get in touch with public opinion and stop maligning the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) for the four most intelligent pages in his book, which he has withdrawn—although, quite rightly, he has not changed his mind about them? It is about time the House allowed intelligent thought among Front Benchers.

Ms Jowell

I join my hon. Friend in assuming that the failure of the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton to respond to that point means that he has not changed his mind about the legalisation of hard drugs.

Madam Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) is not allowed to respond. He does not have an opportunity to do so; he has had his question. Let us have a little justice.

Ms Jowell

To my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn), who has long argued the case in relation to people who suffer from multiple sclerosis, I reiterate that those who wish to undertake research into the beneficial medicinal effects of cannabis use may apply to the Home Office for permission to conduct that work.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)

Does the Minister agree that, when examining the use of drugs—recreational or otherwise—we should consider not only premature deaths but ruined lives? Does the Minister agree that the Liberal Democrats' policy of legalising cannabis is both dangerous and irresponsible?

Ms Jowell

I agree.