HL Deb 24 January 1984 vol 447 cc138-42

2.55 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what action they are taking in the light of the recent report by the Royal College of Physicians to the effect that 100,000 people die prematurely in this country every year as a result of smoking.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health and Social Security (Lord Glenarthur)

My Lords, the dangers of smoking to which the Royal College again draws attention in its report are already of great concern to the Government. We are committed to doing all we can to discourage smoking and so reduce the deaths, disease and illness associated with it. This can only be a gradual process and we shall continue with our existing policies, which are proving generally effective.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that promising Answer. May I ask him whether or not the Government are very concerned by the terms of this report from this influential body, with its reference to a "hidden holocaust of death and disease", and whether he is aware that the Royal College criticises the Government for not being sufficiently active in the discouragement of smoking among all sections of the population and all ages? Will my noble friend have a further look at the restrictions on tobacco advertising, and will he also pass on a suggestion to his right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer that if he is looking for money, the taxation of tobacco would reconcile additional revenue with social benefit?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, the figure of not less than 100,000 which was quoted by the fourth report refers to deaths at all ages and is specifically stated not to be comparable with the mortality figures in the college's previous reports, in which an estimate of at least 50,000 early deaths a year was given. Perhaps therefore that is not quite so bad as my noble friend might think. So far as advertising is concerned, my noble friend will be aware that the Government, like their predecessors, have preferred to proceed by voluntary agreement with the tobacco industry. This approach has been very successful in progressively reducing expenditure on cinema and poster advertising. The current voluntary agreement expires on 31st March, 1986. The reductions in that advertising to which I referred will have been respectively 50 per cent. and 40 per cent. by then.

Lord Shinwell

My Lords, does not this Question require further clarification? Does it refer to smoking in general or specifically to smoking cigarettes? Is the noble Lord aware that I began to smoke a pipe in the year 1893 and that I have been smoking a pipe ever since, although off and on recently because of changed circumstances? Is the noble Lord also aware that on Thursday of this week the Pipe Council is holding a luncheon to which I am invited? So is the famous Henry Cooper, who is to be Pipe Man of the Year. It has been suggested, though not by me, that I might be made Pipe Man of the Century. In those circumstances, ought we not to be rather more specific, as I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, would agree, and say that this applies to a certain kind of smoking, to which some people object? I never indulge in smoking cigarettes myself. Let us have no misunderstanding about the matter. Apart from the financial implications, which are exceedingly important, as the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, declared, a vast number of people want to smoke a pipe. Who has the right to stop them?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I should be the last person to try to prevent the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, from smoking a pipe. He is the living proof—and he looks extremely well on it, too—that smoking does not kill everybody, by any manner of means. But there is no denying that cigarette smoking is the most damaging form of smoking. The last paragraph of the RCP report says: Finally, remember that changing to low tar brands is no substitute for not smoking. Even changing to a pipe or cigar is not without risk. It is best to be a non-smoker. Nevertheless, I am quite sure that if the noble Lord becomes Pipe Smoker of the Century he will receive much acclaim from many people in this country.

Lord Alexander of Potterhill

My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord would make a request to those who produce these reports that they should take the trouble to parcel out the effect of exhaust fumes, which they have never done in any report which they have yet produced.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, that is a very good and interesting point. I shall certainly make sure that the noble Lord's views are brought to the attention of those who produced the report.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, the noble Lord has already said that he congratulates my noble friend on not smoking cigarettes for nearly 100 years. From the report, is he aware that among 1,000 young males in England and Wales one will be murdered, six will be killed on the roads and 250 will be killed before their time by tobacco smoking, mainly by smoking cigarettes, and that the National Health Service suffers to the tune of £170 million a year as a result of smoking-caused diseases? In view of the mounting evidence of the damaging effect of this addictive drug and the growing willingness of the public to see Government action, is it not now time for the Government to take determined action on the basis of the recommendations in this report, especially including the banning of all sales promotion for cigarettes?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I cannot accept that all the criticisms that the report makes are necessarily justified. In recent years there has been a significant downward trend in cigarette sales and the numbers of people who smoke, so smoking is now a minority habit. The most recent figures show that between 1972 and 1982 the percentage of adult smokers fell from 52 per cent. to 38 per cent. in the case of men and from 42 per cent. to 33 per cent. in the case of women. I am sure the noble Lord will agree that this represents a very significant move in the right direction and demonstrates that Government policies, both of this Government and of the Government of which the noble Lord was a part, have had an effect.

So far as a ban on tobacco sales promotion is concerned, I think one has to be very careful about bans in a free society unless there is very firm evidence to support them. In this case there is no clear evidence that such a ban would directly affect overall consumption, and neither does there appear to be majority support for such a ban within the community.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, would not the noble Lord agree that the report does document the experience of other countries where they have in fact imposed such a ban, Norway in particular, showing that there has been a dramatic drop in the sales of cigarettes immediately following the banning of public advertising?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, that may be the case in some countries, but certainly there are other countries which show that the voluntary agreements we have had have been just as effective as in those countries which have introduced a ban.

Lord Morris

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether he has any sympathy for the view that it is not the role of Government to wet-nurse the governed? Furthermore, does he not agree that it is rather more the business of the medical profession to propagate their own reports rather than for the Government to do so on their behalf?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I agree to some extent, but only to a limited extent, with my noble friend. The fact remains that the Government—the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, brought this out—do realise that the cost to the NHS is quite colossal; £170 million is the figure the noble Lord quoted. This is caused by people who do smoke and as a result fall ill in various ways. We should like to try to cut it down wherever we can by the sort of voluntary agreement I have described.

Lord Paget of Northampton

My Lords, I am interested in the logic of both my noble friend on the Front Bench and the noble Lord in concluding that this is a formidable expense on the National Health. Surely, if they did not die of smoking they would die of something else, and that something else would be a charge on the National Health. And, on purely financial grounds, I should have thought that the sooner they died the greater would be the benefit to the National Health.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right that in the end we shall all die of something, but there are other financial facts which I think really are pertinent. For example, smoking accounts for nearly 50 million lost working days each year, and that certainly has an effect on the economy.

Lord Monson

My Lords, would the Minister agree that the report demonstrates that the habit of smoking is 250 times more likely to lead to premature death than is the habit of driving a car without wearing a seat belt? Can he therefore explain why smoking remains legal—and quite rightly so—whereas driving without a seat belt has been made illegal?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, if I trespassed on that particular bit of ground I should be in very difficult trouble indeed, and therefore I do not propose to follow the noble Lord.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, may I ask the Minister whether he is aware that at the age of 17 I watched my father die prematurely at the age of 51? Would he agree with me that many young people under the age of 16 are smoking, and in schools. Would he try to promote television programmes to educate young people, and older people too? Very often it is only on television that the message will get through, because people take this as something useful and modern; young people do not read about it.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I shall certainly take the suggestion of the noble Baroness away with me and see what can be done about television programmes. We are most concerned about the level of smoking among secondary school children and we are taking steps to combat it. The Government have over the past two or three years given the Health Education Council an extra £4 million to spend on educating the public, especially children, on the dangers of cigarettes, and we are encouraging the council to maintain its efforts.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, while not wishing to restrict anybody's liberty, can the noble Lord see whether anything more can be done to liberate those, like myself, who are compelled to consume other people's smoke through not being able to escape from it in public places?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I entirely share the noble Viscount's view, as one who does not smoke myself, but public attitudes and Government prompting to those responsible for public places have led to a substantial increase in the provision of non-smoking facilities generally, and these trends will undoubtedly continue.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the fitness and agility with which he has fielded this very large number of questions is the best possible evidence of the value of being a non-smoker?

Lord Airedale

My Lords, will the noble Lord allow a question from the Alliance? Will Her Majesty's Government take to heart the final sentence of an article in the Economist of 3rd December: Would that Mr. Fowler could resist the tobacco lobby as firmly as he has resisted the opticians"?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I think there is more to that question than meets the eye. I should like a minute or two to think about it. Perhaps I may write to the noble Lord and expand on it. But the point is that the voluntary agreement we have had has been proving effective and the Government do not propose to legislate against tobacco advertising or any other form of promotion in the way suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, and others.

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