That Tobacco Control Plan debate – another view
Friday, July 20, 2018 at 9:32
Simon Clark

There was a 'debate' about the government's Tobacco Control Plan in the House of Commons yesterday afternoon.

It was organised through the Backbench Business Committee that allows MPs to submit subjects for discussion.

On this occasion it wasn't an MP (or even a minister) who instigated the debate. It was that well-known taxpayer-funded pressure group ASH.

On July 4, as Chris Snowdon revealed on his blog yesterday, Cancer Research sent an email to MPs that read:

As you may know, Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) have applied for a Backbench Business Debate for late-July, to note the one-year anniversary of the Tobacco Control Plan (TCP) and discuss its vision for a 'smokefree generation'. I wanted to let you know that the debate has been secured, for three hours in the Chamber, and should be on 19 July 2018.

It continued:

Cancer Research UK will be supporting the debate and – given the opportunity afforded by three hours in the Chamber, with guaranteed Ministerial response – we would greatly appreciate your support in speaking at the debate. We would welcome the opportunity to support you with a briefing, closer to the time ...

I don't know how many MPs CRUK wrote to but, as you can see above, only a handful responded to the call.

For most of the time I counted no more than eight MPs in the Chamber. In addition to public health minister Steve Brine and shadow public health minister Sharon Hodgson, they included Martin Day (SNP) and Jim Shannon (DUP) plus three members of the APPG on Smoking and Health – Bob Blackman (Conservative), Sir Kevin Barron (Labour) and Alex Cunningham (Labour).

The APPG is run by ASH so it was clear who was pulling the strings. Indeed one speaker – Alex Cunningham – didn't even bother to disguise it, thanking ASH for their help in preparing his speech.

With this in mind – and only a year into the current Tobacco Control Plan – it was instructive to hear the measures Cunningham/ASH would like the government to introduce next.

Top of the list are raising the legal purchase age to 21 and introducing a tobacco retailer licensing scheme.

Other sought after policies include a "polluter pays" levy on the tobacco companies, legislation to mandate pack inserts (about smoking cessation), mass media campaigns and a greater role for social media.

The hand of ASH was also detectable in Bob Blackman's contribution. He too talked of mass media campaigns and the "polluter pays" principle, ignoring the fact that the companies, like the consumer, already pay vast amounts of tax and any further levy will undoubtedly be passed on to the consumer, many of whom are already disadvantaged, but that's another issue.

What struck me most about Blackman's contribution was his admission that, for him, this is a "personal issue".

He explained that his parents were heavy smokers who had both died of cancer. I sympathise but I'm also wary of politicians who devote themselves to a personal crusade.

James Reilly, a former minister for health who continues to lead the war on tobacco in Ireland, is another who is driven by family circumstances. According to Reilly both his father and his brother died because of smoking.

The result, I think, is that they find it difficult to acknowledge there is a bigger picture that includes choice, pleasure and personal responsibility.

Anyway, the key speaker yesterday was Steve Brine, an endearingly cheery soul whose enthusiasm for his job was clear to see.

Significant points included the need to:

Interestingly Brine was particularly proud of the UK's influence on tobacco control policies internationally, claiming that the UK was behind new legislation in Georgia.

He also had words for Philip Morris International (PMI) following the revelation that the tobacco company had written to NHS trusts offering to help NHS staff quit smoking (World's biggest tobacco firm under fire over 'disgraceful' PR stunt).

Thanking PMI for its "kind proposal" and awarding the company "ten out of ten for effort", he added – more seriously – that it was "totally inappropriate".

The good news, if I can call it that, is that the government – while focussed on its smoking cessation targets – appears in no hurry to introduce further legislation.

Nor is it under any great pressure to do so. Indeed, what was notable about yesterday's debate was the general harmony between government, Opposition and leading anti-smoking campaigners on the backbenches.

I suspect that will continue but only if the government continues to meet its arbitrary quit smoking targets. Failure to do so will no doubt have ASH and their acolytes in parliament demanding further and more immediate action.

Anyway, I'm thankful that yesterday's debate fell far short of the three hours promised by CRUK in their email to MPs.

Instead, after an hour and 50 minutes, Brine brought the session to an end and the House moved on to something even closer to my heart – an adjournment debate about the A14 Huntingdon-Cambridge upgrade.

And yes, I watched that too.

See also: The Tobacco Control Plan debate (Velvet Glove Iron Fist)

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