1 July marked ten years since the ban on smoking in enclosed public places came into force.
With only a handful of prosecutions it has been a major success story. It certainly spurred many to give up smoking. Today, heart disease is down 20%; strokes down 14% since 2007. Indeed, deaths caused by smoking as a proportion of all deaths for over 35s has fallen by over 10%. It seems ridiculous now to recall how the Health Act 2006 was so controversial.
On becoming Public Health Minister in July 2005, the policy I inherited was far from simple. Although the evidence of the ill health effects on passive smokers was well documented, fear of a nanny state backlash and commercial concerns from pubs and clubs had steered policy to a partial ban that applied only where food was being served. Some MPs called for private golf clubs and working men’s clubs to be exempted.
However, the Health Select Committee chaired by Kevin Barron MP described the exemptions for non-food pubs and clubs as “unfair, inefficient and unworkable”. I agreed.
As a junior minister I realised early on how daft policy could become if the ban only applied where food was served. What constituted food? Were crisps or pork scratchings? I put civil servants through their paces to identify all the unforeseen consequences that may flow from poorly drafted legislation.
I knew too that it would be unfair for the ban to apply to commercial pubs and not private clubs. Above all the idea that some customers and employees would end up being better protected from passive smoking than others simply wasn’t right.
Kevin and I pushed for a free vote with Chief Whip Hilary Armstrong’s backing and we won.
The morning of the debate in an interview I declared I would vote for the ban. Opening the debate, Patricia Hewitt said she would first listen to the contributions before making up her mind citing concerns about the working men’ club in her constituency. I sat there thinking of the dozen and more such clubs in Don Valley and reminded her Tony Blair and Gordon were backing the full ban. She came round.
Now the task was to get everything ready for implementation. Agreeing all the regulations, providing training for those charged with enforcement, working with the organisations affected and delivering information campaigns to the public. Scotland had already introduced a ban very successfully and their experience helped. There was a move to start in February but I argued for 1 July. With better weather and longer days, smokers wouldn’t be grumpy as they were forced outdoors.
A few days before Smoke Free England as we called it came into force Gordon Brown moved me in a reshuffle. But no matter. It was job done.
How normal it once was to sit in clouds of smoke in a pub or café. How shocking it would be today. Public support for the 2007 smoking ban stands at 82%.
Today, many smokers do not smoke in their own home. Parents avoid smoking near children. Many smokers vape to avoid tobacco. The number of under 16s who smoke has halved since the ban.
This is not the end. 78,000 people died last year of smoking-related diseases.
But as public health reforms go, this was a big step.
Rt Hon Caroline Flint MP was Public Health Minister 2005-2007
This article was first published in the Times Red Box, Monday 3 July 2017.