Ministers plan to set tougher targets for cutting smoking

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Ministers are planning to set tough new targets for cutting smoking next month, despite controversy over claims by the Health Secretary John Reid that it is one of the few pleasures left for people in Britain's poorest communities.

Ministers are planning to set tough new targets for cutting smoking next month, despite controversy over claims by the Health Secretary John Reid that it is one of the few pleasures left for people in Britain's poorest communities.

Late drafts of the Department of Health's five-year targets, published today by the Health Service Journal, suggest the current goal of cutting smoking to 24 per cent of adults by 2010 will be replaced with a target of just 21 per cent by the same date.

Senior government sources refused to comment on the leak, saying that the targets had not been finalised.

The Department of Health has already achieved its "half- way" target of cutting the number of adult smokers from 28 per cent in 1998 to 26 per cent by 2005. The target of cutting smoking among 11- to 15-year-olds to 9 per cent by 2010 has already been achieved.

In 1974, 45 per cent of all men and women over 16 smoked.

But ministers are under pressure to toughen their targets for cutting smoking in next months' comprehensive spending review after health campaigners condemned the current goals as "pathetic".

The Department of Health insisted yesterday that it stood by its goal of reducing smoking despite Dr Reid's claims that it was an "obsession" of the middle classes.

The Health Secretary said: "I just do not think the worst problem on our sink estates by any means is smoking, but that is an obsession of the learned middle class."

Dr Reid sparked anger on Tuesday after declaring smoking was sometimes the only enjoyment a young single mother on a sink council estate could get.

His comments appeared to put him at odds with Tony Blair, who last week confirmed that the Government was considering a ban on smoking in the workplace. Ministers are considering including a ban on smoking in the workplace in a public health White Paper, due to be published this autumn. Proposals could also form part of the next Labour manifesto.

Aides yesterday insisted that the Health Secretary, a former smoker, was acting as a "devil's advocate" at an event to promote Labour's "Big Conversation". But his remarks were condemned by opposition MPs and anti-smoking campaigners.

Deborah Arnott, the director of the pressure group Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) said: "If Dr Reid's contribution to the White Paper on smoking is to say, 'let the poor smoke' then his policy on obesity will presumably be 'let them eat cake'. Fortunately, Mr Blair has shown more concern for the damage that smoking does to every section of society."

A spokeswoman for the group condemned the current targets for cutting smoking rates as "pathetic", insisting that ministers should set more ambitious long term aims of getting rates below 20 per cent.

Paul Burstow, the Liberal Democrat health spokesman, said: "This is yet more evidence that the Health Secretary has no clue when it comes to public health. His statement is patronising, damaging and based on weak assumptions."

Andrew Lansley, the shadow health minister, said: "To suggest that for a poor mum with three kids to be smoking is anything other than damaging, coming from the Health Secretary, is regrettable."

The Government is spending more than £40m a year to encourage people to stop smoking. Nicotine patches, a 24-hour helpline, television commercials and cash incentives to GPs have been used to help smokers kick the habit.

SHOULD SMOKING IN PUBLIC BE BANNED?

The beleaguered smokers of Liverpool, still reeling from news that their city could become the first in England to ban lighting up in public places, paid muted homage yesterday to an unlikely perceived new saviour - Dr John Reid.

Gareth Griffiths, 31, a pavement layer, was beginning to despair about his civil liberties when the Health Secretary indicated that smoking was one of the few pleasures left for the poor. He was not entirely happy with Dr Reid's language - "smoking is not just an obsession for poor people," he said - but he insisted that lighting up was a public recreation to which he was entitled.

"I smoke because I enjoy it. If people have a problem with a smoky pub they can drink elsewhere," he said. "It should be up to the landlord to decide whether his place is smoking or non-smoking, not Tony Blair."

Locals with grander-sounding professions immediately took issue with Mr Griffiths. A librarian Sandra Swerdlow, 44, said: "I have never smoked and I don't see why I should suffer other people's bad habits. Smoking affects other people; there's no escaping that fact."

George Jones, an illustrator, said Dr Reid was "foolish" and should withdraw his comments. "He's clearly out of touch with the so-called 'sink estates' ... Why should people ... have to suffer second-hand smoke when we all know the terrible consequences?"

Alex McKenzie, a 24-year-old music student at Liverpool Hope University, agreed. "I think the Health Secretary needs to re-think his comments because a ban would improve the quality of life for everyone."

But a trainee accountant Danielle Mitchell, 25, said: "I agree with Dr Reid that the Government should keep their noses out of other people's business, but I do take offence to claims that this problem only affects the working classes."

Ian Herbert

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