Ministers back out of ban on public smoking

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The Independent Online
THE Government has backed away from legislation to ban smoking in pubs, restaurants and public places and will instead urge landlords and restaurateurs to bring in their own voluntary codes in a bid to cut the risks from passive smoking.

There had been speculation that the Government would seek to follow the bans on smoking in restaurants adopted in New York, or the more comprehensive bans in California, but ministers are keen to avoid being accused of creating a nanny state.

Frank Dobson, the Secretary of State for Health, and Tessa Jowell, the public health minister, accept that it will be difficult to curb smoking without legislation, but they hope an anti-smoking policy based on voluntary codes will encourage a reduction in the habit.

The forthcoming White Paper on smoking reduction will put forward policies aimed at stopping children from taking up the habit, and at persuading adults to stop smoking.

Pubs and restaurants will be urged to set aside smoke-free zones, and they will be warned that their staff can take action under the existing Health and Safety at Work Act to insist on a safe place to work.

The White Paper falls short of the demands for tougher legislation by Ash, the anti-smoking campaign, which wanted the act reinforced to make it easier for staff to take their employers to court if they were exposed to passive smoking.

"We would be disappointed if there is nothing to further restrict smoking in the workplace and in public places. There are ways in which the Government can do more without having to introduce legislation. They do need seriously to look at the current workplace legislation to make it clear to people that employers do have an obligation to protect their staff," said a spokeswoman for Ash.

Ash sent the Government legal opinion from John Melville Williams, QC, which concluded that employers who ignored the health risks to their staff from passive smoking were already breaking the law. He said that knowledge of the dangers of passive smoking was such that no employer could now use ignorance as an excuse for not taking action to reduce the hazard.

Although acknowledging his view, ministers have decided against legislative action, and will be seeking voluntary bans on smoking in public places.

The first step towards a voluntary curb will be the endorsement next week by European ministers of the European-wide tobacco advertising ban which was passed by the health ministers in February after British embarrassment over the pounds 1m donation to party funds by Formula 1 chief Bernie Ecclestone, who was lobbying for a longer transition period. The European Parliament passed the ban in April.

Anti-smoking campaigners have urged ministers to raise the legal age for buying cigarettes from 16 to 18, to make it easier for newsagents to avoid breaking the law. Ministers said they would only do so, if they had overwhelming evidence that it would work.

Ash is more hopeful that the White Paper will propose putting tobacco patches on prescription to enable the poor to get them free. The Green Paper on public health showed that mortality rates for lung cancer were about four times higher among the unskilled than among the professional classes.

The Green Paper said that in 1996, 28 per cent of boys aged 15 and 33 per cent of girls aged 15 smoked regularly, and the figures were rising. It stressed the odds were heavily stacked against smokers leading long, healthy lives.

"A recent study funded by the European Union estimated that passive smoking kills more that 20,000 people each year in Europe. Because of the terrible tolls that smoking takes on health, the Government is preparing a comprehensive strategy on reducing smoking," said the Green Paper.

World war on smoking, page 6