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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.