Sir George supports ban on tobacco advertising.
30 Apr 2002
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe), whose work on the Select Committee on Health has been instrumental in developing policy on smoking. I hope to touch on some of his points.

I want to make a brief speech that will set out a dissonant, and possibly solitary, view among Conservative Members. I welcome the Bill and hope that it is given a Second Reading. When I spoke in the debate on the Queen's Speech nearly a year ago, I commented on the Government's priorities in finding time to ban foxhunting, but not to ban tobacco advertising. There is simply no comparison in the consequences for society of those two activities. It was absurd for the Government to get into a muddle on that, and I am glad that a private Member's Bill is putting things right.
I am afraid that I cannot support the Opposition amendment. Each time this debate is raised within my party, there is a serious discussion between the libertarians and those committed to public health policy. The right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) touched on an exchange when the Conservatives were in government between Lord Heseltine and the rest of the Administration, which amplified the existence of that debate within the Conservative party. On this issue, I come down firmly on the side of public health.

It is worth reminding the House that important policies, such as the compulsory wearing of crash helmets and seat belts, both of which raised the same moral issues about the freedom of the individual and public health policy as a ban on smoking does, were introduced under a Conservative Government. It was a Conservative Government who consistently allowed the addition of fluoride to the water supply, so my party is not a stranger to such debates, nor does it always come down on the libertarian side as opposed to the public health side.

I agree with what the hon. Member for Wakefield said: when people look back at the development of public health policy in this country, they will be amazed at the time it has taken for us to come to terms with smoking-related diseases. This country led the world in combating water-borne diseases, in tackling poor housing, in developing a clean air policy and in developing and promoting vaccination. Smoking-related diseases, however, have not been tackled effectively by public policy since the early 1960s and the publication of the Royal College of Physicians report.

As a former Health Minister, I am prepared to accept my share of responsibility for that, although we had a strategy for putting the measure on the statute book some 20 years ago. Having said that, it is a little difficult to accept the assertion from a party that has had a majority of more than 160 for five years that it is somehow our fault that the Bill's provisions are not already law.

The debate needs to be put in the broader context of health policy, and in particular of the investment of huge resources in conventional medicine. Last week, I re-read the Secretary of State's speech in the Budget debate and found no mention of preventive medicine, health education or public health. The emphasis was entirely on acute medicine, primary care and social services. I very much hope that some of the huge sums that we debated last week will filter through to public health and to health education and prevention. I also hope that the new primary care trusts will be able to focus on public health, given all the other targets that they have been set.

So far as the investment of money in conventional medicine is concerned, we are reaching the point of diminishing returns. There is widespread concern that the huge investment in acute medicine will not result in corresponding outcomes. The gains in the quality of life that we all want to see are more likely to come from people voluntarily making sensible decisions about their lifestyle.

On the nanny state, as a Conservative I believe that people should voluntarily come to informed decisions about their lifestyle. Rather than telling people what they should do, I prefer people to want to do it. If people are to make valid decisions about lifestyle, however, they need all the relevant information in front of them to come to a rational decision. The problem with smoking is that if we leave it to the tobacco companies, consumers—especially young consumers—get a one-sided picture. So we either have to balance the commercial budget with a public budget of comparable size, or restrict the commercial budgets and the promotion of a legal, but lethal, product. The first option would be unaffordable. The second has been the policy since television ads were banned in, I think, the 1960s, but it has never been followed through effectively.
The argument that advertising simply promotes brand awareness is strictly for the birds. I remember an advertising executive justifying the huge sums that used to be spent on advertising toothpaste. He told me that advertising promoted not just the brand, but an awareness of oral hygiene. I think he was right. Intuitively, we know that to be the case. We have all seen television advertisements for holidays and thought that the place featured looks nice, but we often do not absorb the name of the tour operator, or we forget it pretty quickly. The image of a nice holiday remains with us, however. Advertising cigarettes creates an aura of legitimacy and acceptability, which is just what the tobacco companies want to create.

I am not a fan of legislation if there is an alternative. I have examined the voluntary agreement and became convinced some 20 years ago that such a policy would never work because the industry would not agree voluntarily to measures that damaged it. I spent many weeks in direct and frustrating negotiations with the Tobacco Advisory Council. At one point, I suggested that the health warning should be printed not just on the cigarette pack, but on each cigarette. I was told that the ink was carcinogenic and might damage the smoker's health. The industry did not fear individual measures such as the increase in duty, the ban on smoking in public places or the health warnings, though it disliked them all heartily; what it minded was the depiction of smoking as an anti-social, uncool and dirty habit, and its advertising is aimed at establishing smoking as acceptable social behaviour.

Some 20 years ago, the then Government had a strategy for introducing a measure such as that set out in the Bill. In 1981, there was going to be a miscellaneous health services Bill with nothing in it about tobacco advertising, but with a long title that was broad enough for an amendment to ban advertising to be in order. That would have been moved as the Bill went through Parliament and the Secretary of State for Health, Lord Jenkin of Roding, and I would have voted for it on a free vote, together with a substantial number of Conservative MPs. I have no doubt that the House would have supported it and the measure would have reached the statute book. However, there was a shuffle of key personnel as the strategy was being developed and the Bill was dropped from the legislative programme, which I very much regret. This Bill gets us back on target.

I do not claim that banning advertising will solve the problem, but together with upward pressure on prices through tax, growing restrictions on smoking in public places and better health promotion and education, it will form part of a solution that may have a bigger impact on public health than the Budget measures we discussed last week.

Back to index. Index Back to index.
Back to index.

Copyright Sir George Young Bt. 2015