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Henry Smith MP: We must stop our children getting hooked on cigarettes

Smith HenryHenry Smith is Member of Parliament for Crawley.

In March, the Health Secretary, Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt MP, and his team called for the number of people dying prematurely in England to be reduced. Introducing standard tobacco packs would help reduce premature death and there are health, economic and moral reasons for it.

The document outlining their call to action, Living Well for Longer, contains a fairly ordinary sentence that is probably in every health document written since the ‘60s: “Tobacco use is the single biggest behavioural risk factor for premature death”.

Perhaps an ordinary sentence, but an extraordinary statistic. Shouldn’t it still shock us that thousands of people die from their habit every year, many in their middle age?  To put that ‘ordinary’ statement in context, smoking kills five times more people than road accidents, overdoses, murder, suicide and HIV all put together in the UK.

A report in The Lancet showed that the UK’s health performance over the past 20 years has declined relative to 14 EU countries, Australia, Canada, Norway and USA over. Why? The study confirms that tobacco is a key reason behind the UK’s worsening relative performance – smoking ‘remains the nation’s leading risk factor for ill-health.’

So, why wouldn’t we do all we could to stop our children from starting to smoke?

Almost everyone – smokers and non-smokers – hate the idea of their children starting to smoke. We all know how hard it can be to give up cigarettes. Most of us know people whose health suffered due to smoking.  And some of us know people who have died as a result of their addiction to tobacco.

The death toll caused by smoking is phenomenal. Smoking causes an estimated 100,000 deaths a year in the UK including one in four cancer deaths.

As the Government continues to take decisions about where and how to make savings, the cost-effectiveness of prevention strategies must be part of the discussion as well as the societal costs. And the economic argument is strong. Policy Exchange’s 2010 report Cough Up: Balancing tobacco income and costs in society says it all: “It is a popular myth that smoking is a net contributor to the economy – our research finds that every single cigarette smoked costs the country 6.5 pence”. The report also says although tobacco tax in the UK is relatively high compared to other countries, cigarettes are much more affordable today than they were in the 1990s because tobacco duty rates have failed to keep pace with rises in income. Taxation of tobacco contributes £10 billion to HM Treasury annually; however, they calculated that the costs to the UK from smoking are much greater at £13.74 billion. Every cigarette smoked is costing us money. These costs include not only the cost of treating smokers on the NHS (£2.7 billion) but also the loss in productivity from smoking breaks (£2.9 billion) and increased absenteeism (£2.5 billion); the cost of cleaning up cigarette butts (£342 million); the cost of smoking related house fires (£507 million), and also the loss in economic output from the deaths of smokers (£4.1 billion) and passive smokers (£713 million).

As a country, we have so much to be proud of when it comes to tackling tobacco. The UK is a global pioneer in the area of research into the devastating impact of tobacco.

It was UK researchers who first made the definitive link between smoking and lung cancer in the 1950s. And it was UK researchers who showed beyond doubt the risks of smoking and the benefits of quitting, helping to save millions of lives. It was the world-renowned research by Sir Richard Doll, Sir Richard Peto and others that showed that half of all regular smokers will die early as a result of their tobacco addiction, losing on average ten years of life.

It’s vital that research continues into finding new treatments for cancer patients and improving the outcome for patients whose health suffers from tobacco. But, just as importantly, we must also look for ways to stop people getting cancer in the first place. One of the best ways to do that is to stop children from starting to smoke.

The UK is on the right track in helping to reducing tobacco addiction. For the vast majority of smokers, this addiction begins in childhood, with 8 in 10 smokers starting before they turn 19.

Cigarettes are no longer advertised on TV, on billboards or on Formula One cars. Cigarette vending machines are gone. Large shops can no longer openly display tobacco and smaller shops will follow suit in 2015. These measures help stop tobacco companies from having their lethal product as being seen and marketed as regular and harmless. Standardising packs is effectively closing a loophole in the advertising ban – glitzy packets are one of the last ways the tobacco industry can still market its lethal products and research shows that the striking logos and distinctive designs make cigarettes more appealing to children. This is not about 'the nanny state' and it's not about stopping the freedoms of adult smokers. It's about giving children one less reason to start smoking in the first place.

And things are improving. Half as many children aged 11-15 start smoking as they did only 15 years ago. But this is still far too many. Every year in the UK, over 200,000 children under 16 take up the deadly habit.

Teens say “they look cool”. About trainers. About phones. About their favourite singer. They also say it about cigarette packs.

Many people who don’t smoke, or who haven’t smoke for years, are surprised when they see the glitzy designs used on cigarette packs. Research shows that cigarette brands don’t just look attractive – they use tried and tested marketing techniques to suggest aspiration, excitement, being cool and sophisticated. Have a look at the variety next time you’re in your local shop.

Brands aiming to attract women have long, slim cigarettes with glamorous names and chic packaging. Others have a rugged, macho image aimed at the boys. In an age when any parent tries to teach their children about the dangers of smoking the packs are sending a very different message.

The solution is to make all packs look the same - a murky colour with large picture warnings front and back. Leading experts say this will make cigarettes far less attractive to young people. The public agree – a YouGov poll shows that public backing the policy by three to one.

The same polling has shown there is strong public support for standardised packaging – 85% of people support action to reduce young people who start smoking and 63% of people support the introduction of standardised packaging (with only 16% opposed).

The Government consultation closed last summer on this and people from every constituency in the country showed their support for standard packs – including 108 people in my constituency who took the time to respond in favour.

The tobacco industry says standard packs won’t work but if they really believe that, why have they spent so much on fighting it? Also, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) recently ruled the tobacco industry’s adverts on standardised packaging to be misleading and unsubstantiated.

International experts say existing packs are so easy to forge they already have covert markings. And with these markings, there is no reason why plain packs would be easier to forge. Health minister Anna Soubry said in Health Questions recently: “far from being a counterfeiter's dream, the packets produced in Australia would clearly be a nightmare here. A variety of colours, watermarks and holograms, and all manner of other things, can be attached to them, which is why they are described as "standardised" rather than ‘plain’.” Richard Ferry, a Trading Standards officer with thirty years experience, has said The tobacco industry claims that plain, standardised packaging would result in a rise in illegal tobacco sales, and make it easier to produce counterfeit versions of well known brands. I can say, hand on heart, as an experienced Trading Standards officer, that the evidence to support these claims simply doesn’t stand up”.

For all of us who know someone who might have lived longer if they hadn’t smoked – and for those who don’t want their children to start – we must get rid of these. Putting tobacco in plain, standardised packs is the right step to take. It’s a move that will give millions of children one less reason to start smoking.


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