Smoking ban: From world-leading Scottish reform to bid for smoke-free generation

In 2006, Scotland banned smoking in indoor public spaces - now the UK is poised to create the first smoke-free generation.

I’m old enough to remember what it was like before Scotland became one of the first places in the world to ban smoking in pubs, restaurants, and other enclosed public spaces.

Working in a busy pub in Edinburgh in 2006, I had a few months of cleaning out ashtrays before the revolutionary smoking ban kicked in. The smell clung to your clothes and inside of your nostrils long into the day after your shift.

With firsthand knowledge, I can say that overnight, the physical experience of going to work changed, for the better. The health of millions was instantly improved.

Scotland not only led the UK, but was in the global vanguard. No wonder the smoking ban is seen as one of the great reforms of the early days of devolution.

It seems totally natural and irreversible now, but at the time, the smoking ban was a hotly debated topic.

Indeed, that’s partly why Scotland got a head start: while the Labour executive at Holyrood was busy introducing the policy, the Labour government at Westminster was bitterly divided.

One of the leading critics was the former Lanarkshire MP John Reid, now Lord Reid of Cardowan, who as health secretary in 2004 famously said: “I just do not think the worst problem on our sink estates by any means is smoking, but it is an obsession of the learned middle class.

“What enjoyment does a 21 year old single mother of three living in a council sink estate get? The only enjoyment sometimes they have is to have a cigarette.”

Those objections in cabinet contributed to delays, although England wasn’t too far behind in banning smoking in public places in 2007.

Even then, of course, the health experts disagreed with Lord Reid, and now they’re even more convinced: the health impacts of smoking are felt disproportionately by the poor.

And unlike in 2004, the NHS is now stretched to breaking point, so we understand far better how the financial costs of treating those health impacts are felt by the whole system, and everyone who uses and pays for it.

Which brings us to today, with MPs voting on legislation that could stub out smoking altogether.

The Tobacco and Vapes Bill would ban anyone born after 2008 from purchasing any tobacco product, creating the UK’s first smoke-free generation – and then another, and another, until smoking was as distant a memory as the smell of an overflowing ashtray mixed with spilled beer.

Once again, there are political disagreements that risk splitting the governing party.

Rishi Sunak wants this reform to help pad out what could end up being a pretty thin legacy, but dozens of Conservative MPs are opposed – including former prime ministers.

Boris Johnson says it is “mad” for the party of Winston Churchill to be banning cigars, while Liz Truss (who has a vote, unlike Johnson) has called the move “unconservative”.

Just as Labour did 20 years ago, the Prime Minister will avoid a damaging rebellion – including from within his Cabinet – by making this a free vote. And because the current Labour opposition supports the move, it is sure to become law.

When it does, it will eventually be applied across the UK, because the devolved administrations are backing it, too – although the formality of a Legislative Consent Motion will be needed at Holyrood before the law comes into force in Scotland.

Politically, it doesn’t help Sunak that this is an idea borrowed from the former New Zealand government led by left-wing favourite Jacinda Ardern – since replaced by a Conservative administration that has scrapped the policy.

It also raises some obvious questions about implementation and natural justice: in a couple of decades, will middle-aged smokers have to produce ID to prove they aren’t actually a bit younger than they claim?

And what about vaping, which has spread rapidly among young people who may never have picked up a cigarette?

The legislation will impose the same plain packaging rules on vapes as tobacco, and a ban on disposable vapes is on the way, too.

But critics question why a tough new law on smoking is being pushed through when another health problem is looming like a cloud of sweet-smelling vapour.

A major change is coming – but it will certainly be less dramatic than the last smoking ban. This time, to know whether it’s been a success, it may take another two decades for the smoke to clear.

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