HL Deb 27 November 1991 vol 532 cc1307-10

2.43 p.m.

Lord Renton asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, given that smoking is estimated to kill 431,000 European Community citizens each year, they support the £900 million annual European Community subsidy for tobacco growing.

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, I can assure my noble friend that the Government wish to see the European Community support regime for tobacco reformed in the most radical way negotiable. Ideally, we would like to see support phased out.

Lord Renton

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that most encouraging reply. But how, meanwhile, do we reconcile the spending of so much of our hard-earned taxpayers' money with the efforts of the health authorities here and in Europe to reduce smoking for health reasons? Can my noble friend say how much the taxpayers of this country will be expected to pay this year towards the growth of that lethal crop?

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, I agree that it is paradoxical to support the growing by farmers of a crop that is harmful to health. That is why we have consistently sought major reform of the tobacco regime and will continue to do so. But major reform will only become possible when our European partner; start to adopt the same firm line that we take.

My noble friend asked a second question. The United Kingdom contributes to the Community budget as a whole. Our contribution is not broken down or attributed to particular policies or commodities, either by the Community or by the United Kingdom. It is therefore not meaningful to talk of our contributing a particular amount to the costs of the tobacco regime.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, does the noble Earl agree that this is literally a matter of life and death? Continual heavy smoking can be a great drain on the National Health Service. There have been revealed in newspapers in the past few months the great trials and tribulations and the sadness that smoking brings to many people. Should we not now stop subsidising the growing of tobacco anywhere?

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, perhaps I may respond to the noble Lord, Lord Molloy, by telling him of the Government's attitude to the tobacco regime. We have consistently campaigned for reductions in support on health and expenditure grounds. There has been some progress, but significant change will require other member states to join us. So far they have shown little willingness to do so, in particular the southern member states. We are pressing for the most radical reform achievable in the current review of the tobacco regime.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, can my noble friend say how much is spent by the European Community on propaganda against smoking?

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, I can only answer for the United Kingdom. That figure is £3½ million per annum.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, is it not the case that the majority of the tobacco being subsidised comes from Greece, which produces tobacco with no known market anywhere in the world? Does this not make the situation even more ridiculous?

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, but one must bear in mind that 800,000 jobs are dependent on tobacco growing in southern member states.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it is ludicrous that one corridor of the European Community should encourage the growing of tobacco at a cost of £1 billion to the European taxpayer while another corridor should ban the advertising by which they might hope to sell the product? Would not a proper use of the money be to encourage farmers either to grow other crops or to go into set-aside? If the Commission says they have no other crops, perhaps my noble friend will remind it that the same is true of sheep farmers in the hills and uplands of Britain. They have no alternative crop but have had headage limits imposed on them to their great disadvantage.

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, I agree with almost everything my noble friend said. The Government have consistently criticised the tobacco regime on health grounds and will continue to do so. We support the re-orientation of tobacco production away from high tar varieties as a useful step, but it is by no means sufficient.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, has my noble friend seen the report in today's newspapers that the eating habits of the British, particularly beef on Sunday, have a greater influence in causing cancer even than smoking? If that is true, will he discourage the production of beef?

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, I believe that eating beef on Sundays is a British tradition. However, I am afraid that the point is wide of the Question on the Order Paper.

Lord Rea

My Lords, even if the iniquitous tobacco regime—which the noble Lord, Lord Mellish, would agree could be described as daft—were to be put right, does the noble Earl realise that it would have practically no impact on the 110,000 tobacco-related deaths in this country? Has he read the report from the OPCS which was published yesterday? It shows that smoking is increasing in young women in this country. Has he seen reports of the recent experience of Canada and New Zealand where a combination of raising tobacco taxes and abolishing advertising has reversed this trend among the young people who will become the addicted adult smokers of tomorrow?

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, I have not read the report to which the noble Lord referred. The United Kingdom is recognised as having developed effective publicity campaigns on the subject over many years. Smoking prevalence has been reduced from 45 per cent. in 1974 to 32 per cent. now. Only the Netherlands has achieved a larger drop in smoking.

Lord Monson

My Lords, does not the carefully researched figure of the noble Lord, Lord Renton, of 431,000 demonstrate how widely exaggerated are claims by the Department of Health and the Health Education Council to the effect that 110,700 people die from smoking in this country each year? Does the noble Earl agree that we in the United Kingdom comprise only 16.37 per cent. of the population of the Community? Therefore, on a pro rata basis we could not account for more than 70,550 deaths which is only 63.7 per cent. of the figure churned out by the Department of Health.

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, so far as I understand, the figures are correct. The figure of 431,000 quoted by my noble friend is accurate. I have been given the figure of 111,000 premature deaths annually in the United Kingdom. In addition, treatment of smoking-related disease currently costs the National Health Service £500 million.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the cost to the health service of smoking is estimated to be £350 million a year? The cost of running the National Health Service is £32,000 million a year and the cost to the National Health Service of diseases other than smoking is £31,650 million a year. Those figures perhaps put the matter of smoking in its true perspective. Will not the Minister accept the folly of the common agricultural policy which, as he has confirmed, says one thing but does something else? Will he give an assurance that no further such policies will be agreed at Maastricht?

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, as I believe I have stated on four previous occasions when replying to this question, tobacco is an agricultural crop eligible for CAP support. In criticising the regime we are one member state among 12. We are alone in seeking fundamental change in the regime. There is strong support for the regime from the seven producer member states. Having said that, the noble Lord makes a good point. As I have said on previous occasions, the matter poses a dilemma for us.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, have the Government given any thought to encouraging the smoking of herbal tobacco which is so unpleasant that it encourages people to give up smoking altogether, as I did 50 years ago?

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend's comments.

Lord Airedale

My Lords, is it not the case that the high tar, dark tobacco produced in southern Europe mercifully is not appreciated by the rest of western Europe, which imports the lighter tobacco? The subsidised tobacco is being sold at knock down prices to eastern Europe and north Africa and is damaging the health of the people in those countries.

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, about one-third of the European Community's tobacco production is exported outside the Community. Over two-thirds of EC exports are sold to developed countries and only one-third to developing countries of the third world. Only about 10 per cent. of EC production goes to the third world.