Labour favours voluntary curbs on cigarettes

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The Independent Online
THE Government is likely to favour voluntary measures rather than actual legislation to ban lighting up in public places, Action on Smoking and Health (Ash) said yesterday.

The anti-smoking group's comments came in the wake of yesterday's report by the Scientific Committee on Tobacco and Health which linked passive smoking to lung cancer and urged the Government to consider restricting smoking in public places on the grounds of public health.

In America several states have brought in anti-smoking legislation. On 1 January, California banned smoking in virtually all public buildings, including all watering holes, whether regular bars, nightclubs or casinos.

While smoking has been outlawed from restaurants in California for some time as in many US cities this was a step forward, with its detractors comparing it to Prohibition.

The same thing is unlikely to happen in the same way here. It is understood that the Government is unlikely to bring in specific laws but would favour voluntary measures instead.

This would mean that employees could object to working somewhere where smoking was allowed by complaining under Health and Safety at Work legislation, reminding employers of their duty to their workers. Several cases of bar staff suing their employers have been raised in recent months.

"I think what the Government hopes for is that what will happen is what happened in cinemas where cinema-owners got fed up of cleaning up the places and found that their customers actually wanted smoke-free cinemas," said Clive Bates of Ash.

Smoking-related illnesses are said to account for 50 million lost working days a year and some firms have threatened to dock pay off workers who take cigarette breaks. Essex County Council in Harlow has told employees they must clock off before taking a smoking break outside the non-smoking building after a study suggested that smokers spent an average of 40 minutes a day on cigarette breaks.

And Biggs and Shoe Mines, a chain of shoe shops in the North-west, believes that the 12 years during which it paid non-smokers a 10p-an-hour bonus led to a healthier and more efficient workforce.

Perhaps the most serious threat the tobacco industry faces at the moment is potential litigation. In America last year British American Tobacco and other US tobacco giants such as Philip Morris and RJR Nabisco thrashed out a landmark deal with the United States Attorney General for a $370bn tobacco settlement, to be paid over the next 25 years. This came in response to a stream of litigation against the tobacco industry which threatened to turn into a flood.

If this ruling is adopted by the US Congress it will allow BAT to escape from class actions and punitive damage awards but not restrict individual litigants claiming against the tobacco groups.

American tobacco litigation cost BAT pounds 345m last year, including pounds 258m worth of provisions for payments to health authorities in Texas, Mississippi and Florida to cover patient care costs.

Here litigation is becoming more of a reality. Last month judges ruled that lawyers fighting the case for 43 smokers on a "no-win, no-fee" basis should not personally have to foot the estimated pounds 9m legal bill even if they lose.