Most people’s experience of parliament is seeing often confrontational extracts from Prime Minister’s Questions. Sometimes opposition MPs can persuade the PM to act on specific concerns, usually of a cross-party, or long-term nature.
One of the key issues that commands support from all parties has been the drive to reduce smoking, and the massive damage it causes to thousands of individuals and to society as a whole through premature death, lost productivity and the cost of sickness.
There is an ancient philosophical debate about the balance of freedom between the individual and society. It is generally seen as the individual’s right to go to hell in their own handcart, as long as they don’t harm anyone else.
Many people, although the number is thank declining, decide to smoke. Many good friends chose this and are now dead before their time.
But it was their choice even if the choice became difficult to opt out of given the addictive properties of tobacco. The same goes for excessive alcoholic consumption or overeating.
The issue I raised with the PM is not about individual liberty, but the rights of children to a life free from smoking that damages their health through no choice of their own.
You only have a minute or two to ask a question and I tried to pack as much in as I could. I began by highlighting Gateshead Council’s pioneering work on improving public health. I told David Cameron that the council had asked adults to refrain from smoking in play areas. This sets the wrong example to children when we should be seeking to take the glamour out of smoking.
I had read that Cameron’s own health minister, Anna Soubry, has stated her opinion that children should not be exposed to smoke in enclosed spaces such as cars. I tied her comments with the drive for legislation being spearheaded by the Stockton North MP Alex Cunningham and asked that we should go a step further and introduce a ban on smoking when children are in vehicles.
Children have smaller lungs, faster breathing and less developed immune systems and are particularly vulnerable to second-hand smoke. Given the medical evidence, high concentrations of second-hand smoke constitute a form of invisible abuse on the physiology of the child.
Figures show that passive smoking results in more than 165,000 new episodes in children of disease of all types: 300,000 primary care consultations, 9,500 hospital admissions and around 40 sudden infant deaths. The cost totals more than £23m per year in primary care visits, asthma treatment and hospital admissions.
Cameron promised the Government would look carefully at what I said and gave a more substantial account of Government thinking on the wider issue. He said: “We are looking across the piece at all the issues, including whether we should follow the Australians with the ban on packaging and what more we can to do to restrict smoking in public places.”
He told me that I had made a good point. I have been around long enough to know that this is just the beginning of the story. I know that the tobacco industry will be doing all it can to protect its position and the recruitment of new addicts.
We must make sure children’s rights to a healthy life are fully protected. I will be holding the PM’s feet to the fire over this issue.