October 27, 2005

Smoking Debate Blankets Britain

By Kate Holton

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain unveiled new anti-smoking laws on Thursday but failed to impose a total ban on lighting up in workplaces after a heated debate in prime Minister Tony Blair's Labour party.

Widespread reports of squabbling over the issue in cabinet have prompted some analysts to wonder whether Blair, having set the clock ticking on his departure, is losing his iron grip over his government.

Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt announced the ban would cover most -- but not all -- of England's pubs, bars and restaurants.

That would put England at odds with Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland who have either fully banned smoking in public places or announced plans to do so.

Anti-smoking groups were outraged with England's bill, saying it did not go far enough while pub management groups warned it could slash their profits and harm the industry.

"We are utterly dismayed that the government has not listened," said Professor Alex Markham, Chief Executive of Cancer Research UK.

The Chairman of the British Medical Association James Johnson, expressed his "utter disappointment" at the "wasted opportunity to protect the public's health."

Even Hewitt was forced to concede: "Many of us would have liked to go that little bit further and faster."

Under the new bill, smoking would be banned in restaurants and bars where food is served but private clubs will be exempt and pubs serving no food will be able to choose whether to allow smoking or not.

A survey by industry magazine The Publican on Thursday said at least 20 percent of pubs would opt to serve smokers rather than food.

Hewitt had previously said she would prefer a complete ban in all pubs while allowing a sectioned-off smoking room where bar staff would not be present, but this was dropped following weeks of political wrangling.


Former Health Secretary John Reid, himself an ex-smoker who had previously said the habit was a "working class pleasure," had backed the partial ban and insisted it should go no further.

The Guardian newspaper called the squabbling "unprecedented rival briefing" amongst ministers, raising the question of whether Blair was losing control over colleagues jostling for position once he steps down.

Blair has said he will quit before the next election.

Other analysts felt however that he did not regard smoking as "legacy issue" and was content to let the debate flow.

Just over a quarter of Britons smoke, according to campaign group ASH.

Although British scientists were the first to document the accompanying health risks, such as lung cancer, the country has been described has a "tobacco-control time warp" because so little has been done to stamp it out in public spaces.

The northern port city of Liverpool banned smoking in the workplace last year, saying the government was taking too long to legislate.

England's ban will start in 2007 and be reviewed after three years.

A spokesman for the British Beer and Pub Association said pubs in Ireland had seen a 15 percent drop in trade following a smoking ban and expected to see a similar, short-term result in Britain.