Five decades after the link between cigarettes and cancer was established, Parliament will gather today for a historic free vote likely to result in a ban on smoking in most enclosed public spaces in England and almost certainly all pubs in England, whether they serve food or not.
The links between smoking and cancer were first established by the epidemiologist Sir Richard Doll in the 1950s but today's vote, which follows months of wrangling, has caused deep divisions of opinion. On one side of the argument are those who believe that people who smoke in pubs and restaurants pose a grave risk to the health of those around them. On the other are those who see the issue is one of personal choice. Complicating the issue is the financial impact of a ban. Tax on cigarettes is a huge source of revenue for the Treasury and the tobacco industry is one of Britain's biggest earners. Publicans are also concerned about the effect of legislation. But set against this is the enormous burden that smoking places on the NHS - not to mention the health of the nation.
Tony Blair's aides were refusing to say which way he would vote today but, last night, as the anti-smoking lobbyists stepped up pressure on MPs, it appeared there would be a substantial majority for a ban on smoking in all pubs, while a proposal to exempt private clubs was on a knife-edge. Prisons and homes for the elderly are not affected. The Welsh Assembly will have a separate vote on the issue.
One senior minister said: "A ban on smoking in pubs is going to sail through but we're not sure what will happen on smoking in clubs. It's too tight to call."
Conservative MPs privately admitted they were struggling with their consciences over whether to extend a ban to include private clubs. Patricia Hewitt, the Health Secretary, will propose a complete ban on smoking in all pubs but was refusing to say last night which way she would vote on a ban on private clubs.
Her junior health minister announced that she would vote for a total ban in pubs and clubs.
David Cameron, the Tory leader, will vote against any form of a ban on smoking. "David has always been against a ban," said a Tory official. "He regards it as a freedom of choice issue."
However, the shadow Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, will vote in favour of a ban on smoking in pubs, on health grounds.
Mr Blair granted a free vote for today's debate after facing a cabinet split. John Reid, a former health secretary and a reformed chain-smoker, intervened to stop the Government proposing a total ban on smoking in pubs and clubs, insisting it was one of the few pleasures left for the working classes.
In an attempt to secure cabinet unity, ministers proposed that smoking should be banned only in pubs that served food. Ms Hewitt made clear her contempt for such a compromise, rejecting it as "unworkable". She feared that pubs would stop serving food to escape the ban.
A ban on smoking was adopted in Scotland, which has a particularly high death toll from smoking. However, in England, the Government remained reluctant to take a lead, and agonised over the decision. Northern Ireland introduced a ban and the Republic of Ireland introduced its ban in March 2004.
Last year, the all-party Commons Select Committee on Health chaired by the Labour MP Kevin Barron, an anti-smoking campaigner, demanded a ban on smoking and accused the Government of being "muddled and vacillating". Mr Barron and the committee have tabled an amendment calling for a complete ban on smoking.
The row over the proposed smoking ban produced unlikely bedfellows, as the British Beer and Pub Association joined forces with Ash, the anti-smoking campaign, to lobby MPs against exempting clubs from a ban. Pubs fear it will give clubs an unfair advantage over them.
The pro-smoking organisation Forest also sent MPs a letter urging them to vote against a ban. It reminded MPs that some celebrities were against the ban. The chef Antony Worrall Thompson said: "I am against a total ban. I believe in choice."
The Chartered Institute for Environmental Health (CIEH) condemned Ms Hewitt for refusing to back a ban in clubs. Unions also campaigned for a ban, with the Transport and General Workers' Union saying: "Smoke doesn't discriminate between private and public places."
A terrible price
The vote comes two days after the launch of a government-backed anti-smoking campaign featuring the children of a woman dying from lung cancer. The advertisement depicts Trudi Endersby, 43, and her two daughters, Kirsti, 20, and Kia, aged 11. Mrs Endersby, from Meldreth in Hertfordshire, was diagnosed with a Pancoast tumour, which is caused by smoking. She has developed a secondary tumour on her brain. Surgery is unlikely to be successful and doctors say she could die at any time. Her daughter Kirsti, above, said: "I'm an ex-smoker so I know how difficult it can be to quit, but I also know what it's like to plan your own mother's funeral and prepare your little sister for a life without her mum. Nothing is more difficult than that."Reuse content