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Time to introduce a tobacco manufacturers levy

3 min read

Former Health Minister Paul Burstow says that the Government should finally in a levy on tobacco manufacturers and direct the funds on research into cutting smoking rates in the areas where tobacco sales are highest.

Every year over 100,000 people in the UK die from diseases caused by their smoking addiction, while at the same time the two largest tobacco firms in the UK will accrue joint profits of around one billion pounds. And while research shows that about two-thirds of current smokers would like to stop smoking, only about half of them will try to quit in any year.

We all know, tobacco is a hugely addictive drug and with the number of people quitting through the NHS Stop Smoking Services down 19% last year, it is clear smokers need more help to quit. That’s why I am today bringing a Bill before Parliament with cross party support that is calling for a Government programme of research on a levy for tobacco sales, and how the money raised could be used to cut smoking rates and reduce the damage that smoking causes.  

The Chancellor’s Autumn Statement last year announced that a levy on tobacco manufacturers and importers would be considered and the Labour party have supported the idea. In last week’s Budget it was confirmed that the consultation is ongoing. These moves are welcome, but my Bill today goes further, and calls for a programme of research into how the levy could be used to reduce the harm caused by tobacco. It also calls for research to be conducted into how the levy could be assessed and collected, so that we can ensure that most resources are focussed on the areas where tobacco sales are highest.

In the United States something similar already exists, with tobacco companies required to pay an annual “user fee” to the Food and Drug Administration to fund tobacco regulation and control activities. Last year, this funded approximately half a billion dollars’ worth of public education programmes and the same again on research projects to support additional regulation on tobacco products. In the UK, we already have a policy that places obligations on energy companies to invest in energy efficiency, and particularly emphasises the need to reduce fuel poverty for poor and vulnerable households. We now need to apply the same principles to tobacco manufacturers.

Independent research suggests that £500 million could be raised from a levy based on tobacco sales data. This money should be dedicated to a range of activities, including Public Health England action and regional strategies focussed on smoking cessation, as well as tobacco control work by local authorities and the third sector. The funding would cover stop smoking services, mass media and public education campaigns, research, and efforts to tackle illicit trade at local and regional level. It could also fund new initiatives such as a positive retail licensing scheme, to help ensure that retailers do not face any new costs.

With the costs to society of smoking in England estimated at almost £13 billion a year – including a two billion annual cost to the NHS of treating diseases caused by smoking – it’s time we got serious about tobacco companies responsibilities. Drawing a levy on their enormously profitably sales is one way to work towards the ambitions of the NHS Five Year Forward View and its rallying cry to get serious about prevention. It would put a significant dent in the funding gap facing the health service, and critically, it would save lives.

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