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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 June, 2004, 12:58 GMT 13:58 UK
Smoking prompts 'nanny state' debate
Health Secretary John Reid has declared that smoking is one of the few pleasures left for people on council sink estates.

So does the fact so senior a politician has responded publicly to calls for a smoking ban in public places indicate a recognition of a backlash against what may be perceived as so-called "nanny state" policies?

Woman drinking
Life is about living. Some people choose to smoke, eat fatty food and drink
Simon Clark, director of Forest

A White Paper on public health due out in the summer is expected to tackle key issues such as obesity and smoking.

Meanwhile ministers are said to be considering banning smoking in public places.

Now Dr Reid has entered the debate, arguing the poor should be allowed to decide whether or not to smoke and the middle classes should not patronise them.

The middle classes, he said, were obsessed with giving instructions to people from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

Smoker's lobby group Forest (Freedom Organisation for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco) said it was "refreshing" to hear a politician take such a pragmatic approach.

Director Simon Clark told BBC News Online: "Life is about living. Some people choose to smoke, eat fatty food and drink.

"People are getting concerned the government is beginning to interfere too much in people lifestyles."

As for the smoking debate, he said: "I think there will be a backlash if the government pushes ahead with a smoking ban without proper consultation from all sorts of groups within society."

He said his group shared Dr Reid's concern that the anti-smoking campaign "is driven by a fairly small number of middle class activists who do not represent the population at large".

While he has no issue with publicity about the health risks of smoking, he said: "It must be a choice. A lot of people enjoy smoking, regardless of the health risks."

Dr Reid's background as a former heavy smoker who dealt with constituents from council sink estates on a daily basis made him well-placed to make such comments, said Mr Clark.

Vested interests

But the anti-smoking charity Ash (Action on Smoking and Health UK) rejected any suggestion there was any public backlash against moves to ban smoking in public places.

Instead spokesman Ian Willmore said that in the last two to three years there has been a big shift of opinion in favour of action to deal with smoking in the workplace.

People aren't stupid. Most smokers know it is lethal habit
Ian Willmore, Ash

Opinion polls suggested support for a workplace smoking ban was supported by all social economic classes, he said.

He dismissed Dr Reid's comments as "reactionary and a misconception about working people's beliefs."

He added: "It would be helpful for him to go an estate and talk to someone whose husband has died young from lung cancer or emphysema and ask her whether she thinks smoking is one of the few pleasures left in life and banning it a middle-class obsession. I think he would get a sharp answer."

As for suggestions that a smoking ban was indicative of a "nanny state" trying to run people's lives, he said: "The state's role is to implement the liberal principle allowing people to do what they want up to the point that they damage other people."

Banning smoking in the workplace no more infringed people's civil liberties than preventing people from driving the wrong way down the motorway, he said.

He said undoubtedly there would be strong vested interests against a public smoking ban, chief among them from the tobacco and hospitality industry.

But according to Ash, men in socio-economic groups AB are twice as likely to reach the age of 70 as those in groups DE, with smoking being the biggest contributing factor.

"People aren't stupid. Most smokers know it is lethal habit," he said.

What had changed in recent years was a wider recognition that smoking not only affected the health of the smoker, but that of third parties through passive smoking.

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