Evidence 'suppressed' on benefits of smoking ban

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Evidence of thousands of lives could be saved each year by outlawing smoking at work has been suppressed by the Government because it fears a ban will prove too expensive for bars, clubs and hotels, anti-smoking campaigners claimed yesterday.

A Health and Safety Commission (HSC) study, leaked to The Independent, says up to 2,340 lives a year could be saved by outlawing workplace smoking. But ministers have refused to publish their own "impact assessment" of a ban.

The study says such a ban would help prevent up to 180 lung cancer deaths a year, with a further 866 people expected to avoid the disease by giving up the habit because they cannot smoke at work. The remaining lives would be saved through reduced heart disease and strokes, bronchitis and asthma as well as fewer workplace injuries and fires.

The total savings to government and business, including the National Health Service, could be £21bn, the study says.

The Department of Work and Pensions said the document had not been released under open government legislation because the policy was still being assessed. But anti-smoking groups accused the Government of deliberately withholding the evidence because it undermined its case against a ban. Marsha Williams, of Action on Smoking on Health, said it was "putting the inflated concerns of the hospitality trade and small businesses ahead of the very real health impact of passive smoking".

Fresh protection for workers was first proposed in a White Paper on smoking in 1998. Downing Street and the Department of Work and Pensions are understood to have been heavily lobbied by businesses, including bar and club owners who fear a ban could cost them too much.

They have since delayed the introduction of a ban, which would force bars to protect their staff from passive smoking either by putting in fans and ventilation or by outlawing smoking at the bar. But the code of practice would leave it up to businesses how to interpret the new rules. They would have a duty only to protect staff from the effects of passive smoking, although customers might also benefit. In offices, smoking at the work station would be banned, but smoking rooms would be allowed if they were ventilated.

A new specific code of practice – on top of health and safety legislation introduced in 1974 before the dangers of passive smoking were known – would mean businesses could be prosecuted if they failed to take "reasonable and practicable steps" to protect their workers from passive smoking. In August 2000, the HSC produced a "draft regulatory impact assessment" of introducing the new code of practice. It says most businesses would have "negligible" costs of banning smoking at desks or on building sites. But costs to the hospitality industry could total £1.7bn, although employers would save on cleaning costs, damage to equipment, safety benefits and lost working days.

"The total quantifiable benefits have been estimated to be between £8.7bn and £21.1bn over 25 years," the report says. "These benefits accrue from an increase in lives saved by smoking cessation, a reduction in the number of workers developing lung cancer and productivity improvements."

The Health and Safety Executive said last night that it did not comment on internal documents. It was "working with other government departments about how to take the code of practice forward".