What to do about the tobacco companies still killing millions? Make them pay – and heavily

4 October 2023

By Michelle Mitchell, The Guardian

People close to me have died because of smoking, while firms reap huge profits. A new tobacco levy is the answer

For me, this is personal. Tobacco kills one person every five minutesin the UK and is responsible for about 150 cases of cancer every day. Researchers estimate that 9.3 million people in the UK have died because of smoking since the 1960s. This figure includes some of my nearest and dearest.

Growing up near Liverpool, which had one of the highest smoking rates in England and still does, I was constantly exposed to the toll this addiction takes on lives. People I knew were unable to work due to illness; children like me inhaled toxic cigarette smoke; and the financial and health burden on my home town weighed heavily.

Cancer Research UK estimates that people who smoke spend on average at least £2,000 a year on tobacco – and smoking rates are higher in more deprived areas of the UK, where we also know people die younger, have poorer access to healthcare and a worse experience of the NHS. These communities are also being hit the hardest by the cost of living crisis.

Every year in the UK, the four largest tobacco manufacturers make around £900m of profits. Millions of people are hooked on a product that they can’t stop using, creating a continuous demand. In fact, cigarettes are the one legal consumer product that will kill the majority of its users.

Both my parents smoked, and I hated it, but nicotine is incredibly addictive. They wanted to stop, but like many others, they couldn’t. The truth is that about eight of every 10 people who smoke have tried to quitat some point.

We can’t allow this to continue. Strong leadership and political action are required now. Our leaders need only look back at history to give them the courage and confidence to act. Since the 1950s, smoking rates have fallen in line with actions taken, including legislation on how tobacco products are manufactured, packaged, marketed, sold, taxed and consumed. Isn’t it time for a new wave of action? Rishi Sunak is said to be considering raising the legal smoking age, and Labour has already floated the idea – this would be welcome. But we still need tangible action to help people who smoke to quit. We need to hit this lethal industry where it hurts – its profits.

The idea that a “polluter pays” isn’t new. Water companies are fined for dumping sewage unlawfully. The gambling industry is set to pay a levy that will be used for research into and treatment of gambling addiction. Even ordinary folk in UK cities are paying charges in ultra-low emission zones for polluting vehicles. So why doesn’t the tobacco industry pay for the destruction it causes?

Action on Smoking and Health (Ash) estimates that smoking costs the NHS about £2.5bn every year, while global tobacco companies rake in more profitsevery year than Coca-Cola, Disney, Google, McDonalds and FedEx combined. Staggeringly, tobacco industry profit margins can be as much as 71% in the UK.

In the UK, we gain £11bn in taxes on tobacco products every year. This is dwarfed by the £21bn smoking costs the public purse each year, according to Ash. This includes reduced income from taxes, increased benefits payments, higher unemployment and lower earnings among people who smoke; plus, costs to public services including the NHS and social care.

A new tobacco levy should be directed into a smoke-free fund, a resource used primarily to achieve a smoke-free UK by funding the measures and services that will help people to stop smoking – and prevent them from starting. This would include increasing the number of stop smoking services, finding better ways to combat illicit tobacco and underage sales, delivering more mass media campaigns – and, importantly, ensuring that this is done equitably across the country.

By introducing a tobacco levy, we could make the industry pay for the damage it does to people’s lives, to our economy and to the NHS. Collecting this money could come from price-capping and profit controlling or from tax increases – either way it is imperative that the tobacco industry should have no say over how this money was spent. The government wants England to be smoke-free by 2030. This is a noble and necessary target, but one it is set to miss by almost a decade. A tobacco levy could help to turn this around.

No matter what your political views are, one way or another, tobacco affects us all. The loss of loved ones to smoking-related disease, NHS backlog and waiting lists, economic inactivity due to ill health: none of these are party-political issues, which is why cross-party collaboration and commitment is vital.

The autumn statement is fast approaching. We’re at a crossroads: this could be the perfect opportunity for the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, with cross-party support, to write the next chapter and take critical steps towards bringing an end to smoking. To make the tobacco companies pay for the damage they cause. To give our loved ones the proper support they need. To make it easier for people to stop smoking and less likely they will start in the first place.

Doing nothing has a deadly cost. Between now and 2040, we predict there will be an additional 1m cancer cases caused by smoking. Now is not the time to be timid. Now is the time to act.

  • Michelle Mitchell is chief executive of Cancer Research UK