Tobacco Products (Plain Packaging)

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster, Conservative)

As my hon. Friend Bob Blackman has made clear, the Government, at the behest of the very well funded, vocal and influential health lobby, are examining whether to introduce plain packaging for the nation’s tobacco industry. I, for one, believe that that is an entirely unjustified step and that it would create an unsettling precedent—the state prohibiting the producers of a legal product to use its legally protected and valuable branding. It is a serious challenge to all those who believe in free markets, enterprise and the economic system of capitalism.

I would very much agree with what was said in the earlier exchanges: if it is such a terrible product, have the honesty, as many in the health industry do not, to say that the whole product should be banned. I would accept that if it is felt to be such an unhealthy product, it should be banned, but we would also then be going down a road that would probably, before long, affect the alcohol industry, fatty foods and so on. That is not a state of affairs that I would like.

John Glen (Salisbury, Conservative)

Would my hon. Friend not wish to make a distinction between moderate consumption of alcohol and fatty foods, which is perfectly tolerable, and moderate consumption of cigarettes, which have an appalling effect, no matter how many are consumed? There is a real distinction.

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster, Conservative)

No doubt the health lobby would quickly suggest that alcohol and fatty foods were equally intolerable, even at the lowest level.

Let me make it clear at the outset: I accept fully that tobacco is addictive, but it is a legal drug for adults. I am the father of two young children—a son of five and a daughter of two—and I would not want them to take up tobacco, not least because my late father also died of lung cancer. In passing, it is worth making the observation that our coalition partners and the Opposition would allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote, but not to purchase cigarettes. The age restriction for tobacco, of course, has risen from 16 in recent years.

I accept that tobacco smoking is subject to commensurate regulations and restrictions. No one should sensibly want to see children take up smoking or should encourage them to take up the habit. I believe that we should do all we can to discourage, to educate and ultimately to prevent those under the legal age from taking up smoking. However, I also believe passionately in the concept of freedom of choice. The decision of whether or not to smoke should remain that of an informed adult, without gratuitous interference from the state.

One should not forget that tobacco is already one of the most highly regulated products in the world. The introduction of plain packaging would almost certainly amount to a regulation too far, and the so-called “denormalisation” of tobacco is not a sufficiently valid policy decision to justify such action. Any decision by the coalition Government must be unequivocally evidence-based. To contemplate taking such a significant measure for a legal product, the evidence base must be rock solid and reliable, with a guarantee that it will have the outcome intended.

I must confess that I am very pleased that the Department did not place a bid in this year’s Queen’s Speech, and that the Government, with a very libertarian junior Minister as we know, have sensibly delayed making a decision until it is clear what impact plain packaging has in Australia, where a plain-packaging law has been introduced. In my view, it makes sense to see how that experiment works first, before following their lead.

Any decision must be categorically made on the basis not of who shouts loudest or which side of the debate is able to muster the largest number of automated e-mail responses. The enforced introduction of plain packaging would infringe fundamental legal rights that are routinely afforded to international business. It would erode some important British intellectual property and brand equity, and it would create a dangerous precedent for the future of commercial free speech in areas such as alcohol and, indeed, within the food industry.

There is so much more that I would like to say, Mr Hollobone. It has been an interesting debate. I accept that my contribution is on a different path from those of many other Members here, but it is a voice that perhaps needs to be heard in this debate, which we will no doubt have in the months and years to come.