February 14, 2006

MPs to vote on smoking ban in pubs

By Kate Holton

LONDON (Reuters) - England looks set to follow Ireland's
lead and ban smoking in pubs when lawmakers vote on Tuesday
after both health and brewing industry groups joined forces to
bring it in line with the rest of Britain.

The vote follows a climbdown by Prime Minister Tony Blair's
government, which had previously proposed merely a partial ban,
exempting private clubs and pubs that do not serve food.

That idea had incensed many lawmakers from Blair's own
Labour party and prompted the government's chief health adviser
Liam Donaldson to consider resigning.

In response, the government said it would allow a free
vote, in which MPs vote according to their consciences rather
than on party lines.

They have three options: a total ban on smoking in pubs and
private clubs; a ban in pubs but not private clubs and the
original government plan exempting clubs and pubs that do not
serve food.

Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt said she would vote for a
ban in all public places except private clubs.

"What we're trying to do here is balance on the one hand
protecting people from harm and on the other hand people's
individual freedoms," she told BBC radio.

Hewitt insisted that whichever option parliament chose
would be the biggest advance for public health in decades.

"There's complete agreement on the issue of a huge ban
here, a ban that is a massive step forward for public health
and that will save thousands of people's lives," she said.


There are some 20,000 private clubs and over 53,000 pubs in
England and Wales, according to the British Beer and Pub
Association (BBPA).

A partial ban would put England at odds with Ireland,
Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales which have either
completely banned smoking in indoor public places or have
announced plans to do so.

Ian Willmore of the anti-smoking campaign group ASH said he
was cautiously optimistic that MPs would adopt a total ban.

"Once you've conceded the health and safety grounds, then
it becomes an all or nothing case," he said. "That's why all
attempts to come up with half-way houses invariably founder on
the rocks of reality."

Blair's government bowed to pressure after the cross-party
Health Committee led by chairman Kevin Barron put forward an
amendment to remove the exemptions in the law, which is due to
take effect in mid 2007.

"It looks very much like there will be a complete ban in
all pubs," Barron, a Labour MP, told Reuters. "It is just
whether or not the private members clubs are going to be

After initial concerns about the financial impact,
Britain's pub groups said they would support a complete ban as
any compromise allowing some clubs to permit smoking would put
England's pubs at an unfair disadvantage.

Barron said this had had a big impact on the debate.

"They (pub industry) say an exemption on clubs will
threaten local, rural pubs. The intervention of the industry
has had a real effect in terms of their (MPs') thinking."

The BBPA has said pubs in Ireland saw a 15 percent drop in
trade following their smoking ban and they expect to see a
similar, short-term result in England.