At any other time a government not fully behind anti-smoking initiatives would appear quite odd. The harms of smoking to the individual, to their family and to wider society are well-established and irrefutable. We are, though, not in ordinary times, and this is no ordinary government.
The Khan review, commissioned by Sajid Javid when he was health secretary, set out the route towards a “smokefree” UK by 2030. Implementing it would be a bold and welcome government intervention that would save tens of thousands of lives a year, lift around 2.6 million people out of poverty by saving them money, and have a net positive effect on the UK economy of around £5 billion.
The review is well-considered. In its recommendations an incrementally increasing legal age for smoking (effectively creating a generation of non-smokers) is combined with a complete ban on selling tobacco products online or in supermarkets. There is also the relatively controversial move of encouraging the switch to nicotine replacement products, such as vaping. The vaping industry has quadrupled in size over the last decade, and is now worth around £3 billion in annual revenues.
The only loser seems to be the tobacco industry. Under this plan, the tobacco industry’s annual £1 billion in profits from UK smokers will sharply decline year on year and, under this plan, no amount of advertising or lobbying will reverse that trajectory.
So why then has Thérèse Coffey, the present Health Secretary, not come out in support of the initiative? Sources have told the Guardian that the government’s plan in response to the review, which Javid had promised by the end of the year, will not be published. The Department of Health and Social Care said it was “inaccurate” to suggest the plan had been dropped, but would not say when it would be published. “No decisions have been taken,” it said.
If Coffey, who is a smoker, does dilute the plan, or simply refuse to act, it seems most likely that her argument will revolve around individual liberties. In a recent interview on LBC she said: “I didn’t think it’s the right thing to be doing to be telling parents [how] to be handling the situation.” This comment related to the law (which Coffey voted against) that protects children from passive smoking. It looks like the tiresome “nanny state” argument will once again be rolled out, this time to support, of all things, the right to smoke.
The public, however, is unlikely to support such an argument. A survey included in the Khan review found that only 6 per cent of the public felt the government was doing too much to control smoking; only 30 per cent felt the government was taking enough action.
Reneging on the previous commitment to publish the plan to reduce smoking is likely to be unpopular, cost the UK billions of pounds and, crucially, it would pass up an opportunity to save thousands of lives. If Coffey wants to argue in favour of doing even less to control smoking she will need to do a bit better than simply “it’s not our job”.