The last gasp: Health Secretary signals new smoking curbs

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Cigarettes will be banned from public display in shops and vending machines are to be scrapped under dramatic new plans designed to curb smoking among young people.

Packets of 10 cigarettes will also be outlawed under proposals to be published later this week by the Health Secretary, Alan Johnson. A consultation paper includes plans to force cigarettes to be kept "under the counter" out of public view, Mr Johnson said.

His comments came as he praised moves by the Scottish government to ban cigarettes on display north of the border. "I think they're right to do that and we're considering that as well," said the Health Secretary.

It represents a further dramatic step in a decade-long campaign to curb the consumption of tobacco products. That has been seen as an infringement of individual rights and civil liberties for some time but anti-smoking campaigners have welcomed each move as a step towards dramatically improving the nation's health.

Yesterday, Mr Johnson indicated that the Government would not simply stop with the ban on smoking in public places that was introduced last summer. "Younger people are more influence by advertising," he said. "Two hundred thousand kids under 16 start smoking every year and their chances of a premature death from smoking are three times higher than if they had started smoking in their twenties."

A series of constraints on cigarette advertising have come into place over the past two decades, seeing it stripped from billboards, magazine pages and sporting events. Now the final strongholds of cigarette branding and marketing, the shops where they are sold, are in the firing line.

And the minister also pointed out that banning vending machines, where there was no control over the age of the purchaser, had already happened in other European countries. He said they had enjoyed "startling results".

He went on to target the 10-pack. "I started smoking very young and you could get 10 Woodbines and you could get threepenny singles. Well they have taken threepenny singles away but whether you should still be able to buy 10 cigarettes or whether you should insist you can only buy 20 is an issue we need to look very closely at."

The move, which was backed by anti-smoking groups yesterday, would represent the latest in a series of drastic curbs on smoking designed to reduce the 114,000 deaths each year from smoking-related diseases. Ministers are anxious to cut the number of teenage smokers, with figures showing that more than 80 per cent of adult smokers started in their teens.

But pro-smoking groups accused the Government of an "Orwellian" drive to force people to act "in a government-approved way". Retailers also attacked the plans, saying they would cost them thousands of pounds.

The latest crackdown on cigarette sales mirrors Wednesday's decision by the Scottish government to impose a ban. Smoking in public places was banned in Scotland two years ago, and became illegal in England last July. Cigarette advertising outside shop display units was banned in 2002.

Government figures show that the proportion of smokers in Britain fell from 28 per cent in 1999 to 25 per cent in 2005. Ministers aim to cut that figure to 21 per cent by 2010. However, the habit is most prevalent among the 20- to 24-year-old age group.

Yesterday, Action on Smoking and Health, the anti-smoking pressure group, welcomed the latest move. Its director, Deborah Arnott, said: "The Government is to be congratulated for launching this ambitious consultation on a comprehensive new strategy to drive down smoking so soon after successfully implementing 'smoke free' legislation. We welcome the focus on protecting children, as two thirds of all smokers start smoking before they reach the age of 18, significantly increasing their risk of dying from cancer.

"Smoking is still by far the major cause of preventable death and disease, exacerbating health inequalities and killing more people each year than alcohol, obesity, road accidents and illegal drugs put together. Reducing smoking, especially among the most disadvantaged in society, continues to be the number one priority if we are to significantly improve public health."

But the pro-smoking group Forest attacked the proposed ban and claimed the move would herald attempts to tighten restrictions on alcohol and food

The group's spokesman, Neil Rafferty, said: "It is really disingenuous to say that a point of sale ban is all about children. We are not aware of any evidence that it cuts youth smoking. What this is really about is making smokers feel bad about themselves, feel immoral or feel like they are buying pornography."

"It's about trying to get the rest of society to shame them. If you talk about 10-packs, if a teenager can buy two 10-packs a week they can buy one pack of 20. If people are trying to cut down or give up then banning 10 packs denies them that choice. This is all about de-normalising smoking, which is an Orwellian phrase," he added.

The Liberal Democrat health spokesman, Norman Lamb, said: "It is vital that the Government cracks down on underage smoking and access to cigarettes for youngsters. Vending machines are the key outlet which must be controlled and it's taken too long to address the issue."

"However, any measures taken must be evidence-based," he added. "There is a risk that Labour's addiction to headline-grabbing could lead to measures that are gimmicky, contradictory and would fail to prevent sales to underage smokers."

A spokesman for the British Retail Consortium, which represents all levels of retailers, added: "We think this will make no difference at all to people taking up smoking or the habits of existing smokers but it will impose costs of thousands of pounds to pay for shopfitting."

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