With almost one in three of the UK population still a smoker, the need to increase the number of smoke-free buildings is a contentious issue. Bernard Crouch speaks out for those who would rather not breathe in fumes
04 March 2005
The government white paper, Choosing Health, which was published last November, aims to improve the nation's health, through better nutrition, reduced smoking and lower alcohol consumption. Digby Jones, director general of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), says that the government is attempting to shift the burden of responsibility for the nation's health away from parliament and towards businesses instead. The CBI is keen to defend companies from what is sees as the "the advancing forces of the nanny state" and Jones states that: "business should not be the scapegoat for badly crafted and poorly implemented legislation".
Recently the government has found it difficult to reconcile different viewpoints when introducing new legislation. The fox-hunting bill has taken over seven years to introduce and the gambling bill was dramatically altered at the last minute with the number of proposed mega-casinos slashed from more than 100 to eight.
Nonetheless the main proposals contained in Choosing Health may become law. If these new laws are successful, expect the government to consider further healthy living legislation.
Part of the Choosing Health white paper deals with smoking not only in public places but also in the workplace. The paper presents four different options varying from self-regulation through to a total ban. The preferred option seeks to achieve a mixture of both.
Although UK smokers number almost half of what they did 40 years ago, smoking continues to be a popular activity particularly with 16 - 25 year olds. The government hopes that the new legislation outlined in the white paper will achieve three aims:
Reduce the number of smokers. Despite the steady reduction in the number of smokers,smoking related diseases are still the biggest killer of adults in the UK
Reduce the amount of passive smoking - approximately 80 per cent of passive smoking occurs in the home
Discourage teenagers from taking up smoking - but a ban introduced in Norway last year has had the opposite effect with an unexpected increase in the number of 16-25 year olds smoking
At the same time the government is also worried that a total ban would be unpopular (mainly among the UK's 27 per cent of smokers) and that significant tax revenue could be lost along with the possible closure of some pubs. For these reasons it has created various exceptions to the proposed ban which include, 'wet pubs' - those not serving food prepared on the premises; private members clubs - which includes the Houses of Parliament; prisons; long-term healthcare; mental healthcare and grieving relatives in hospitals.
No serious proposals have been made for protecting staff where smoking is still permitted. In 'wet pubs' and members clubs "smoking will not be permitted at the bar" which suggests that the government is not entirely serious about passive smoking and how to deal with it. Tobacco smoke contains 4,000 different compounds, 50 of which are carcinogenic.
The gases in the smoke spread very rapidly - one cigarette being smoked can quickly contaminate an average-sized room and any non-smokers present will then be inhaling those gases.
Other countries have set higher targets for reducing the level of smoking, but recognise that governments, not businesses should be responsible. Sweden has the best 'reducing smoking' success rate, down from UK levels to less than 17 per cent. This has been achieved by working with smokers and wherever possible avoiding bans. The Swedish government states that : "no one should involuntarily be put at risk from tobacco smoke". It intends to go much further and by 2014 Sweden is confident that they will have "halved the number smokers who smoke the most" and "halved the number of young people who start smoking".
Compare this to the targets set by the UK government, which envisages a 5 per cent reduction in adult smokers by 2010, and yet includes more draconian measures than those planned for Sweden. In developing the legislation the UK government primarily considered the Republic of Ireland and New York City but it did not visit Sweden.
The proposed timetable of this legislation for England and Wales is as follows: by the end of 2006 all government department buildings and the NHS (apart from the areas described above) will be smoke-free. By the end of 2007 all enclosed public places and all workplaces will be smoke-free. The final stage of this proposed legislation will be introduced by the end of 2008 when the arrangements for licensed premises will be in place.
Wales currently does not have the power to implement such a smoking ban, but it has asked the government to give it powers to proceed with the introduction of a full ban. A decision on this will be taken by May 2005.
In March 2006 Scotland intends to implement a comprehensive ban on smoking in public places, which will include all workplaces. The only exceptions detailed so far are prisons and long-term healthcare.
Some of the main aims of this proposed legislation may not be met, but it seems likely that we will all be able to enjoy a meal in a smoke free environment before long, although we may well find the entrance to the restaurant blocked by a group of smokers.
Bernard Crouch is director of Smoke Free Systems UK