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Tobacco tax could lead to ‘a cigarette-free world by 2040’

UK political parties show support for a ‘polluter pays’ rise in taxation of tobacco firms

Pressure is growing for the introduction of an additional levy on cigarette sales in the UK, a move that campaigners say could help eradicate tobacco consumption within decades.

All three main political parties have signalled that they are open to the idea, which has been discussed by senior civil servants in the Treasury and the Department of Health and would be the latest salvo to be fired across the bows of big tobacco. From tomorrow, newsagents will no longer be able to display tobacco products behind their counters and from next year cigarettes will have to be sold in unbranded packs.

The small print of last month’s budget confirmed that the coalition remains open to the idea of a levy, first floated in a consultation exercise unveiled in last year’s autumn statement. Tobacco companies had hoped the idea would be scrapped, but instead the coalition confirmed that it “will continue the consultation on whether to introduce a tobacco levy through informal consultation with stakeholders”.

In last week’s televised leaders debate, Labour leader Ed Miliband confirmed his party’s support for the measure.

Andy Burnham, Labour’s shadow health secretary, told the Observer: “We will introduce a levy on the tobacco companies who profit so much on the back of ill-health to pay for a new guarantee of cancer tests and results within one week.”

Last month, Lib Dem MP Paul Burstow introduced a 10-minute rule bill debate proposing a similar measure.

“The industry is one of the most profitable on Earth,” Burstow explained. “The two largest tobacco firms in the UK, Imperial and Japan Tobacco International, hold around four fifths of the UK market and achieve joint profits of about £1bn a year. Charging those firms to help clean up the damage their products cause is a rational and justified extension of the ‘polluter pays’ principle to public health policy.”

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The idea of a levy draws heavily on the US, where cigarette manufacturers are required to pay an annual “user fee” to the Food and Drug Administration to help fund tobacco control. But its introduction in the UK would draw fierce criticism from the tobacco companies, which complain that their industry is already one of the most heavily taxed in the world.

Health campaigners say the introduction of a levy equivalent to 25p a pack could raise £500m a year, money that they say should be used to fund measures to help people quit and prevent the uptake of smoking. Health campaigners believe devoting greater resources to tobacco control will bring major benefits. A campaign launched in the Lancet by a number of leading physicians suggests that higher taxes on cigarettes could be one of a suite of measures that would help bring about a tobacco-free world by 2040. Central to this aim is a global push for the UN to agree a landmark resolution recognising the health threats presented by tobacco, similar to that which it issued about diabetes.

“The idea of a tobacco-free future has strong support around the world, but on current trends it is still only a dream, even in the UK,” said Deborah Arnott, chief executive of health charity Action on Smoking and Health.

“To realise the dream requires sustained and properly funded comprehensive smoking prevention strategies, which are threatened by budget cuts. The tobacco manufacturers make obscene profits from their deadly products, and the public, rightly, supports a levy to make the industry pay for the tobacco-free future that we all want to see.”

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