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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 May 2006, 23:20 GMT 00:20 UK
Call for debate on public health
Smokey bar
A smoking ban is already in place in Scotland
Experts are calling for a debate about what restrictions and measures should be taken to protect public health.

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has launched a four-month consultation on the ethical issues which would be thrown up by a more robust approach.

Senior scientists heading the project said there were contradictions in the government's tough stance on smoking and liberal approach to alcohol.

Compulsory vaccination and restricting access to care will also be considered.

Is it justified to restrict individual choices to protect society?
Professor Jonathan Montgomery

Sir John Krebs, an Oxford University professor and chairman of the working party set up to examine the issue, said it was the perfect time to examine the issue.

The government launched its Public Health White Paper 18 months ago and there is growing concern about binge drinking and obesity.

Sir John said: "If you look at the White Paper you see that the government does struggle to have a coherent framework in which to view these issues."

Accusation of inconsistency

In reference to the relaxation of licensing law last year and the forthcoming smoking ban, he added: "On smoking and alcohol this doesn't seem consistent."

He also pointed out the government's hands-off attitude to alcopops being targeted at youngsters would not have been repeated with cigarettes.

Jonathan Montgomery, professor of health care law at Southampton University and another member of the working party, agreed.

He said many experts considered the impact of alcohol to be greater than smoking.

"There are no easy answers to these questions. It is a complex issue.

"We hope to provide a framework in which decisions can be taken about public health."

The working party will also look at whether fluoride should be added to water to protect teeth, and if vaccination programmes should become compulsory.

In France and the US children are required to be vaccinated against certain infections before they can enrol for school.

There has been a dramatic increase in mumps in the UK following the fall in the MMR vaccination rate after the jab was linked to autism eight years ago.

'Culture change'

But perhaps the most controversial issue will be the consideration given to restricting care or demanding greater contributions from those who smoke or drink excessively.

Professor Montgomery added: "The key question we have to consider is - is it justified to restrict individual choices to protect society? We want to hear what everyone thinks."

Department of Health spokesperson said reducing the health impact of alcohol was a priority, and was being driving forward by the Alcohol Harm Reduction Programme.

"The programme aims to help individuals make more sensible drinking choices and we are developing a communications campaign to warn people about the dangers of binge drinking.

"Flexible opening hours are part of changing the culture. The new law gives the vast majority, who drink in a civilised manner, more choice and similar freedoms to those enjoyed in other countries, in Europe as well as New Zealand and Australia.

"We are also working closely with the alcoholic drinks industry to promote more sensible drinking."

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