My role in the smoking ban

Caroline Flint MP was public health minister from 2005 to 2007 and oversaw the introduction of the smoking ban, which she describes below.

Caroline Flint MP. Image: Foreign and Commonwealth Office

On 1 July England celebrated a decade since the ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces came into force. It’s been a huge success for public health and today, as smoking is becoming increasingly marginalised, it’s easy to forget just how controversial the ban was at the time.

The numbers are significant. There are around 10% fewer deaths caused by smoking in the over-35s today, compared to 2007. Deaths from strokes are down 14.5%, and heart disease by 20.8%, just because of the decline in smoking, and exposure to secondhand smoke. These are not fractional gains — thousands of lives have been saved, many more improved.

When I became the public health minister, the policy situation was difficult. On the one hand, there was plenty of evidence of the negative health impact of secondhand smoke. On the other, there was nervousness in some quarters that a smoking ban would be seen as a “nanny state” measure, and many were concerned about the effect it may have on the hospitality industry. As a result, some MPs called for pubs that didn’t serve food and private members’ clubs to be exempted.

Quite rightly, the exemptions were labelled by the Health Select Committee, chaired by MP Kevin Barron, as “unfair, inefficient and unworkable”. How do you define food? Where do you draw the line, do crisps count, what about pickled eggs? My department looked at the potential for problems that might result from such legislation and there were plenty. It was also clearly unfair to protect the health of people working in some pubs and not others.

The Opposition agreed to allow a free vote and Kevin Barron and I, with the backing of the chief whip, pushed for the Government to allow a free vote on the issue too. We won, and the exemptions were removed by an overwhelming majority of 200 votes.

We spent eighteen months ensuring that the legislation would be properly implemented. Scotland had already implemented a smoking ban, and we learned a lot from their success. From day one it was supported by the majority of the public and compliance rates were over 98 per cent, and now most smokers too say they support the legislation. Fewer smokers are now smoking in the home in front of their children, something that was of concern to some MPs at the time the legislation was passed. The number of under-16s who smoke is half what it was in 2007.

Clearly, we have come a long way and, a decade on, smoking rates are down to their lowest recorded level at 15.5%. But this is not the end. Smoking is still the leading cause of preventable death killing 78,000 people in England last year, and hundreds of children still start smoking every day. But looking back, I’m reminded that politics can make a difference, and not a smoke-filled room in sight.

Caroline Flint is a Labour MP and was Public Health Minister from 2005–2007. You can follow her on Twitter @CarolineFlintMP