Word to the not so wise - be careful what you wish for
Saturday, November 3, 2018 at 10:14
Simon Clark

They never give up, do they?

Earlier this week Sir Kevin Barron, Labour MP for Rother Valley, vice-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Smoking and Health and a member of the APPG on E-Cigarettes, introduced a Ten Minute Rule Bill.

It’s competing for parliamentary time with 149 other Private Members’ Bills so the chances of it being adopted are very small. It’s instructive nevertheless of the direction tobacco control and their supporters in parliament want to go so it’s worth monitoring, if nothing else.

The first reading of the Tobacco Bill 2017-19 took place on Tuesday and parts of it could have been, and possibly were, drafted by ASH.

Then again other bits could have been suggested by Philip Morris and the Foundation for a Smoke Free World so make of that what you will.

If adopted the Bill would ‘require the Secretary of State to report on means of requiring tobacco companies to meet the costs of smoking cessation services; to make provision about the advertising and marketing of products that are alternatives to tobacco; to require tobacco companies to publish information about their activities in relation to such products; to create an offence of selling tobacco without a licence; and for connected purposes.’

Speaking in support of the Bill, Barron declared:

We must recognise that the tobacco companies have been extremely dishonest in the past about the harm caused by smoking. Tobacco companies have made a fortune selling cigarettes and they have got the country into this mess. I believe it is only right that they get us out of it. We should and must follow the simple principle of the polluter pays. They have the resources and the customer base to help smoking cessation tools get straight to the people who need them most.

The proposed tobacco transition fund would work in a similar way to the carbonated drinks industry fund, providing incentives for both individual consumers and the tobacco industry to change their behaviour. Over the next decade or so, such a fund could raise up to £1 billion, which would be spent primarily on cessation services in the areas with the highest smoking prevalence. The fund would be paid for by the major tobacco companies according to their market share. The fund would remain at the same level, regardless of the number of smokers in the UK, thereby making it increasingly costly for any company that wished to continue selling cigarettes as the number of smokers declined. The vast majority of the fund would be passed directly to local authorities to fund cessation services, with a particular focus on those with the highest rates of prevalence.

The fund could also provide extra ring-fenced money to Public Health England to promote switching by funding independent research, with the aim of promoting popular understanding and awareness of non-combustible products. The final element of the fund would be to support trading standards in its ongoing efforts to combat illicit trade in combustible tobacco, with the investment based on Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs’ assessment of local need and impact. The fund would need a robust and independent governance structure to oversee spending by the Department of Health and Social Care, Public Health England and local authorities. It would also require accurate reporting by the manufacturers of their efforts to switch consumers. This could include publication of sales data, and research and development spend ...

We must also look at reducing access to harmful tobacco products that are still being sold. At the moment, there is no requirement in England to have a licence or to register with a local authority to sell tobacco. Scotland has a model that requires registration, which is relatively simple to complete and free for retailers so that it does not hit small businesses. Introducing a register in England would strengthen tobacco control, making it a criminal offence to sell tobacco without being registered. If retailers sell illicit tobacco or sell to minors, they could then be struck off the register altogether.

You can read the full statement here but it's worth highlighting two of the main points.

One, Barron wants a tobacco levy. This of course will be passed on to the consumer who already pays an astronomical level of tax on tobacco. The fund will pay for smoking cessation services and effectively underwrite the tobacco control industry for decades to come.

Two, he wants restrictions on the number of retailers that are allowed to sell tobacco and a limit on the number of tobacconists in certain locations including, I imagine, residential areas. Again, the impact on smokers – not to mention convenience stores – could be substantial.

Thankfully Conservative MP Philip Davies, an old friend of Forest and someone who brings a sceptical eye to such initiatives, was present to point out a few home truths:

The right hon. Gentleman proposes that the House should require the Secretary of State to report on how he is making the tobacco industry pay for smoking cessation services. One is tempted to ask how much more than £12 billion the Rt Hon Gentleman wants or expects, but of course what he is calling for is some kind of levy on tobacco, which he and a few others have repeatedly asked this and previous Governments about in the House. Indeed, such a question was asked only last month by Rachael Maskell, so clearly Members are having no difficulty in holding the Government to account on this issue, and I certainly do not think that we need a new Bill to help us ...

On the advertising and promotion of alternatives to smoking, such as e-cigarettes, the Rt Hon Gentleman will be aware that the Government has already committed to examining how they can better support smokers with clear information after we leave the EU and once we are no longer held back by the outdated thinking of the EU’s tobacco products directive - yet another benefit of leaving. The best thing that a smoker can do, of course, is to quit smoking altogether, but it is obvious that those who cannot, or do not want to, deserve to be told the truth about e-cigarettes and other products that could offer them a less harmful alternative. At present, the law prevents manufacturers from giving them that information, but I hope that once we leave the EU, we will be able to change that.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman asks for the introduction of a tobacco licensing scheme, with tough penalties, but again that simply is not needed. The Government are already at work on implementing a Europe-wide system to track and trace tobacco products. That system will require that manufacturers, importers, wholesalers and retailers are all registered on a public database as “economic operators” in order to handle tobacco. That is a de facto licensing scheme anyway, and it does everything that is needed to support trading standards enforcement against unscrupulous criminals who sell smuggled tobacco or sell tobacco to children—with a bit of luck, we will see a few more of them behind bars as a result. I certainly hope that anyone who is caught committing such crimes would be automatically struck off the list and rendered unable to legally handle tobacco.

Despite Davies’ well-judged comments the Bill received an enthusiastic welcome from one body that ought to know better but has not, it seems, considered the long-term consequences.

The expression 'be careful what you wish for' is over-used but in this case it’s entirely appropriate.

The second reading of the Bill is scheduled to take place on Friday November 23. I’ll keep you posted.

PS. You can watch the introduction of Sir Kevin Barron’s Ten Minute Rule Bill by clicking on this BBC iPlayer link.

Article originally appeared on Simon Clark (http://taking-liberties.squarespace.com/).
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