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Last Updated: Wednesday, 3 March, 2004, 11:48 GMT
Public asked how to boost health
A workplace ban on smoking is being touted
Health Secretary John Reid has called for a public debate on how best to improve the nation's health.

He has launched a three-month consultation to find ways to tackle "worrying trends" in obesity, sexually transmitted infections and cancer.

Mr Reid wants to gauge public opinion on issues like banning smoking in public places, restricting foods ads and improving access to contraception.

The results will be used to draft a new white paper on public health.

'Future at stake'

Mr Reid urged everyone to take part in the debate.

'I want everyone to make their voice heard because everyone's future is at stake.

Key questions
Should there be rules on where sweets and cigarettes are displayed in shops?
Should the government make contraception more widely available?
Should smoking be banned in public places?
Should there be restrictions on what can and cannot be advertised, such as junk food?
Should the government do more to encourage people to exercise?
Source: Choosing Health,
Dept of Health
"We are setting up the biggest consultation exercise of its kind to ensure we hear from across the country - from people of all backgrounds, from industry, sport, the media and of course the NHS," he said.

"It's not setting out government policy. It's asking questions in order to stimulate debate."

The nationwide debate aims to canvass opinions on a wide range of possible measures to improve public health.

Some are relatively uncontroversial. For instance, people will be asked what could be done to help them cycle to work, or how they could be helped to buy healthier food.

However, others are far more controversial. They include the thorny issue of whether condoms should be handed out to teenagers to reduce sexually transmitted infections and whether smoking should be banned in shops, pubs and workplaces.

The consultation document, called Choosing health? A consultation on improving health, also seeks views on far the government should go to influence public health.

For instance, it asks if government should decide what food industry produces, what can and cannot be advertised and even where sweets, snack food and tobacco is displayed in shops.

A report by Treasury adviser Derek Wanless last week warned that action to prevent ill health was badly needed.

However, the government is sensitive to the charge that if it interferes too much in people's private lives it could be accused of fostering a nanny state.

The aim of the new consultation exercise is to test the water to see exactly how far the public wants the government to go to encourage people to adopt healthier lifestyles.

Shadow Health Secretary Tim Yeo has criticised the government for failing to tackle major public health issues during its first six years in office.

The Liberal Democrat health spokesman Paul Burstow has also accused the government of dithering.

"The NHS is poorly equipped to lead the public health drive.

"Report after report after report won't change this unless ministers start delivering a sustained public health strategy."

The BBC's Kevin Bocquet
"Questions about exercise will feature high in the government's survey"

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