David Jones is a former Welsh Secretary and is MP for Clwyd West.
It isn’t just the headline-grabbing freedoms that make our departure from the European Union the best outcome for this country; it’s about the small print, too. Now Brexit is complete, we can reassess our current legislation that originates from transposed EU Directives.
The Department of Health and Social Care is currently reviewing the regulations that imposed the EU’s Tobacco Products Directive into UK law and is, we are told, producing a new Tobacco Control Plan this summer.
I am using my Westminster Hall debate today to urge the Public Health Minister to take back control of our tobacco harm reduction policies. When the health of the nation has never been a more important issue, we must use this opportunity Brexit has provided. We must make sure these policies are grounded in science and give the seven million smokers in the UK the best possible chance at moving away from cigarettes for good.
While smoking rates have fallen in recent years, the problem is still real, and we must remember the inequalities behind these numbers. Harm from smoking falls disproportionately on the most vulnerable in society. So now is the time to act, and I am asking three things of the Minister today. And to reassure colleagues and readers, these actions have zero cost to the taxpayer.
First, it goes without saying that smoking kills. But we must accept that the fundamental problem with smoking is the smoke – the combustion. This needs to be at the forefront of our evidence-based policy making and should remain the core principle through which we regulate.
While we should maintain strong barriers to combustible tobacco – whether through the role of proportionate taxation or maintaining secure borders to prevent supply from smugglers – we should also embrace the role of non-combustible alternatives for those smokers who can’t quit.
So, secondly, I am calling on the Minister to introduce a new reduced-risk smoking products category to provide a robust regulatory framework that can cover – in a consistent manner – all the products we have on the market now, and indeed could have now we have left the EU.
E-cigarettes have made a great impact in the UK; however, many smokers have tried them but have stopped using them, so we should look at whether the nicotine level set by the EU is one that is enough to ensure that smokers stay switched.
Nicotine pouches have had a promising start in the UK, but we must make sure they are sensibly regulated to avoid purchase by minors and non smokers.
Snus has been banned by the EU, but has had a great impact on smoking levels in Sweden, where they managed an exception, so we should also legalise it now we can. And heated tobacco, which has high success rates at getting smokers off cigarettes, is sadly held back because, under transposed EU law, smokers aren’t allowed to hear about it.
Indeed, all these alternatives won’t be effective unless smokers know about them, and the misinformation around them is addressed.
So, thirdly, I am asking the Minister to introduce measures to get accurate information about alternatives directly to smokers – whether that’s inside cigarette packets, targeted at them online, or by allowing shopkeepers to speak to them about all of the options available.
And when we have such bold and innovative policies at home, why not be proud to defend them robustly abroad?
An important and beneficial consequence of leaving the EU is that we no longer have to align to the views of the EU group when it comes to multilateral gatherings. It is no surprise the weight of the Government machine has been activated for our hosting of COP26 – the climate change conference – later this year.
But the Government should also have a clear strategy on the role our newly independent voice can have at other Conference of Parties meetings that the World Health Organisation organises.
For the little-known COP9 concerning tobacco control – also in November this year – I am urging the Minister to challenge the WHO, because it is a body that has taken positions that run completely counter to UK policy. It wants to ban e-cigarettes – and seems simply not to understand the concept of tobacco harm reduction.
There is much the world can learn from our approach. Put simply: policy divergence from the EU on vaping and smokefree products is a quick win for Brexit that will improve public health, level up the nation and firmly establish the UK as the world leader in tobacco harm reduction.