Fine words, but too few deeds on public heath

First alcohol pricing, now cigarette packaging - as the election nears, it seems the Coalition is concerned to ditch policies that could be unpopular with voters


If the Government really wants to convey the message that it regards public health as a priority, it seems to be going about it in a mighty strange way. At the end of last week, to the fury of MPs and campaign groups, the Health minister, Anna Soubry, disclosed that plans to impose plain packaging of cigarettes were being delayed. This week, the Home Secretary is expected to announce that there will, after all, be no minimum pricing for alcohol.

In both cases, ministers up to and including David Cameron, had initially expressed enthusiasm for the policies and then prevaricated. On cigarette packaging, Ms Soubry said the decision reflected a consultation that showed “highly polarised” views about the effectiveness of such a measure. She said it had been decided to wait for the results of the plain-packaging policy in Australia before proceeding.

On alcohol pricing, it appears that measures designed to set a minimum unit price will be replaced by a much more modest ban on selling below cost price. One reason for backtracking on a policy strongly supported by the Prime Minister is said to have been the view of many MPs that it would penalise ordinary, “responsible” drinkers.

This might offer a key to both U-turns. With the general election now less than two years away, it has been suggested that the Coalition is concerned to ditch policies that could be unpopular with voters. But this cannot be the whole story, not least because smoking is now very much a minority pursuit in Britain and because both measures seemed to enjoy wide public support.

A more malign explanation, seized upon by Labour, is the supposed influence on Conservative policy of the party’s election consultant, Lynton Crosby, whose Australian lobbying firm is believed to advise some of the big tobacco companies. That such allegations could be electorally damaging is clear from the party’s reaction. The chairman, Grant Shapps, was out and about on the political talk shows yesterday, describing the accusation as a “smear” and denying that Mr Crosby had any role in setting policy.

Too sharp a focus on Mr Crosby, however, risks diverting attention away from the bigger and more permanent conflict the Conservative Party faces: the money it receives from tobacco and alcohol companies – money which, in the absence of a comprehensive reform of party funding, it needs in the run-up to an election. While pub landlords were among those supporting a minimum price for alcohol (in the hope of reducing sales lost to supermarkets), both tobacco and alcohol companies lobbied ferociously against the proposed changes in the regulations. It seems they have largely won.

Any government faces the further conundrum that if consumers spend less on tobacco and alcohol, less money comes into the Exchequer in duty. With tax revenue a short-term, year-to-year, matter and savings on health spending from fewer people smoking and drinking evident only in the longer term, the temptation to favour the short term is clear.

It might have been hoped that the Government – indeed any government – would judge measures to reduce smoking and drinking as good in themselves. Alas, it appears, once again, that the Government is not prepared to match its fine words about improving public health with deeds. The consequence is a shameful situation, where Scotland’s devolved government is left to show the way. It was Scotland that pioneered the ban on smoking in public places, with England following more than a year later. Scotland is now pressing ahead with minimum pricing for alcohol and is considering going it alone on cigarette packaging. That is all to Holyrood’s credit, but health is too important for the rest of the UK to be left behind.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: 3rd Line Virtualisation, Windows & Server Engineer

£40000 - £47000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A 3rd Line Virtualisation / Sto...

Recruitment Genius: Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Service Engineer

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A successful national service f...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Sales - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Fixed Term Contract

£17500 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently require an experie...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Army reservist Corporal James Dunsby  

Whether it’s in the City, the Army or at school, this ritual sadism has to stop

Chris Blackhurst
Caitlyn Jenner, the transgender Olympic champion formerly known as Bruce, unveiled her new name on Monday  

'I'm the happiest I've been for a long time and I finally know where I fit': Here's why role models matter for trans kids

Susie Green
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific