Health secretary voices concern at duty-free's return under no-deal Brexit

Denis Campbell Health policy editor
Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA

Matt Hancock has voiced unease at the government reintroducing duty-free drink and cigarettes if there is a no-deal Brexit, amid growing anger among health experts at the move.

Critics claim the policy, which the Treasury unveiled on Tuesday, is at odds with the government’s determination to eradicate smoking altogether and reduce alcohol-related harm.

The health secretary signalled his concern when quizzed about it at Public Health England’s annual conference on Wednesday in Coventry.

“We’ve got to keep winning this argument,” Hancock told a delegate who said the possibility of “cheap booze and fags” post-Brexit did not square with ministers’ desire to end smoking completely by 2030.

“Look, I don’t think that the return of duty-free was really seen from within a public health context, shall we say, before publication. Certainly, I didn’t see it before publication but – leave that one with me.”

Jennifer Dixon, the chief executive of the Health Foundation thinktank, said: “The promotion of cheap alcohol and tobacco by the Treasury is at best ironic, given that reducing alcohol consumption and smoking is a central plank of government health policy. Tobacco use remains the leading cause of death in the UK.

“The promotion of tobacco and alcohol in this way runs counter to the government’s stated objective of preventing ill-health and reducing [health] inequalities.”

Dixon’s colleague Anita Charlesworth, the foundation’s director of research and economics, accused the government of ignoring evidence that the high price of cigarettes has contributed to the decline in smoking rates seen in recent years.

“Research evidence is clear: fiscal and regulatory policy have been very cost-effective tools to reduce smoking and contributed to better health and longer life.

“To see the Treasury promoting cheap tobacco is a travesty of evidence-based policy,” said Charlesworth, a former senior Treasury mandarin.

Toby Green, the policy and research manager at the Royal Society for Public Health, also voiced unease.He said: “For years, those of us in public health have been calling for more joined-up thinking across departments in Whitehall.

“We know that pricing of alcohol and cigarettes is one of the biggest influences of consumption, so if the government wishes to be taken seriously on prevention, it would be reassuring to see this reflected in policy and rhetoric.”

The Treasury declined to respond to Hancock’s remarks or the mounting criticism its policy has prompted.

A spokesperson said only that: “The return of duty-free with the EU means people travelling to and from EU countries will be able to buy goods under the same rules as people travelling to and from non-EU countries.”

Under the Treasury’s plans, if a no-deal Brexit occurs on 31 October travellers to and from the 27 EU countries would be able to pay much less for beer, wine, spirits and tobacco products.

A bottle of wine bought by a passenger flying from Heathrow airport would be up to £2.23 cheaper than at present, for example. Similarly, someone returning to Britain would be able to save £12 if they bought two crates of beer if excise duties were axed.