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News • November 21 2004

Smoke signals from the UK

The smoking ban in the UK will be introduced gradually over a four year period, Karl Schembri reports

The British government’s plan to ban smoking in most public places announced last Monday has ignited a fiery reaction from diverse quarters, with smokers and conservatives saying they are sick of the nanny state and health pundits faulting the plan for not going far enough.
While the smoking ban in England seems to be following a trend that is picking up all over Europe, Tony Blair’s government did not fail to give it the typical British touch, with a “staged approach” to implement the ensuing laws over four years and also with some concessions which promise to provide fertile ground for legal experts in search for loopholes.
Pubs and clubs that do not serve hot food will be left free do decide for themselves whether they shall remain smoke-free, and only by 2008, while in the meantime smoking in restaurants will be gradually phased out - a more limited ban than that practised in Malta, Ireland, Norway and Sweden and proposed for Scotland.
British Health Secretary John Reid, who a couple of months ago said that smoking is one of the few pleasures of life left to the poor, defended the compromise by warning a complete ban could drive smoking back into the home and so endanger the health of children.
“This is a sensible solution, I believe, which balances the protection of the majority with the personal freedom of the minority in England,” he said announcing his plan to the House of Commons. “We will see smoke-free environments becoming the norm both at work and at leisure.”
He said the measure was a fair compromise that respected the people’s right to make unhealthy choices, but not to the detriment of others.
That’s not what a great part of the British medical establishment and anti-smokers think, although this is already a great step for a country where pubs and smoke are synonymous.
Besides, Reid’s White Paper is a comprehensive, wide-ranging public health policy paper that also proposes measures to reduce obesity, alcoholism and unhealthy promiscuity.
It seems the British Labour government is seeking to consistently warn of the various unhealthy choices which the Brits like to make although this has provoked even wider criticism about the nanny state.
“Does Mr Blair seriously think that anybody in the country, above the age of puberty, is unaware that sexual intercourse may lead to pregnancy, and promiscuity to infection?” The Daily Telegraph said. “What irks Mr Blair most of all is the public's infuriating tendency to do what the public wants. He seems to believe that it is the job of government to stop that. Hence the draconian ban he proposes on smoking in public places – as impertinent and patronising an assault on freedom as any proposed by a British government since the Second World War. Mr Blair should stop lecturing us on how to lead our lives and devote his energies instead to giving us a health service that works.”

Hail the Brits
– Philip Fenech, General Retailers and Traders’ Association
“We totally agree with the way England is introducing these measures. In fact it is what we have been asking government from the very beginning when this issue arose. We knew that all the EU was going to introduce measures to curtail smoking but the idea was that countries were going to take roughly between three to seven years to introduce smoking restrictions gradually so that there would be a win-win situation, where smoking would be restricted to certain public places only so that socially and economically the impact would be gradual so as to give the desired permanent result.
“In April the GRTU agreed that 90 per cent of our public places would have a total smoking ban. These included offices, retailing establishments etc, excluding the leisure industry but banning smoking where hot food is served. Giving voluntary choices to the rest of the leisure industry, so that we would wait for other countries within the EU to come on board so that our tourists would have got accustomed to it in their country and not come to Malta and complain. This would have created a natural harmonisation between all the countries in the EU and it would have made sense that Malta would have said instantly that it has a 90 per cent ban in public places and another 10 per cent would be further split between smoking and non-smoking places until the other countries came on board within the next three to seven years, as is envisaged.
“Malta unfortunately chose to introduce it aggressively, with all the social and economic negative impacts that we are now experiencing and the GRTU is appealing to government to reconsider its decision and follow Health Secretary John Reid’s common sense.”

“I thought the Brits would take more time” - Mario Spiteri, Director Health Promotion Department
“Considering everything, it’s already a great development that England has decided to ban smoking indoors. It’s a shift from previous policy, which was consistent under both Labour and Tory governments. The British have always been lenient on smoking, that’s why this is a development.
“Over here things are quite different. The ban is being observed and people in bars are smoking outside the premises, maybe because the weather is still mild. However Reid’s comments that a smoking ban in pubs would mean more people would smoke at home doesn’t really apply to Malta, because the Maltese are usually egoistic outside their homes. If the law continues to be observed in the long term we will have less people smoking irrespective of where they are.
“The argument against leaving it up to pubs to decide whether they will allow smoking or not, is an argument against the staff working there. It is discriminatory, because some would have to work in a smoke-filled environment while others would be spared all that. That’s unfair.
“Within two years more than half the EU members would have regulations similar to ours.’ Nobody apart from the British is mentioning the voluntary designation of non-smoking areas. All this talk about the nanny state doesn’t make sense because you either acknowledge the government’s regulatory function or you don’t. Also, you can’t really compare smoking to junk food because cigarettes are really the biggest source of morbidity and indoor pollution.”





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