10 years of smokefree: a victory for parliament and public health

Bar workers are among those able to enjoy smokefree workplaces since the legislation


This coming weekend marks the tenth anniversary of England going smokefree in all enclosed public places including pubs, bars and private members clubs. It’s hard to imagine now but any legislation, never mind as wide ranging as this, was inconceivable only a few years before it was passed. The government line, supported by the opposition, was that: “We do not think a universal ban on smoking in all public places is justified while we can make fast and substantial progress in partnership with industry.” [1] The “partnership”became the “Public Places Charter”, voluntary, self-regulatory and supported by the main hospitality industry organisations.

Nothing changed as a result of this “partnership”, the number of smokefree pubs could still be counted on the fingers of two hands, and while some large employers took up the challenge to go smokefree, most small businesses did not and half the workforce still had to work in smoky environments. But even though it had become very clear industry was not up to the job, the government refused to change its mind.

So how did what a Labour party official called “an extreme solution”, become what a Labour Minister subsequently called a “historic piece of legislation”, now claimed by all the main political parties as a major achievement for public health?

Parliament is the answer, backed up by strong support from the public and the health community. Following a strong campaign the Government tabled smokefree legislation in 2005, but it still excluded pubs, bars and private members clubs. The Health Select Committee, under the chairmanship of the current vice chair of the APPG on Smoking and Health, Kevin Barron, carried out a detailed scrutiny of the evidence and the legislation and came to the conclusion that the proposed exemptions were ‘unfair, unjust, inefficient and unworkable’. [2] The Committee members then tabled an all Party amendment to the Bill, to remove the exemptions for non-food pubs and private members’ clubs.[3] This cross-party support for the amendments helped convince both the Opposition and the Government to allow a free vote on the issue.

On St Valentine’s day 2006 the House of Commons passed legislation on a free vote to prohibit smoking in all pubs, bars and private members clubs by an overwhelming majority of 200 [4], subsequently upheld in the Lords.

That vote was a major step forward, proving that there was a strong cross-party consensus in both houses for legislative measures to tackle the harm caused by tobacco. In 2010 shortly before the election the Labour Government published an updated tobacco strategy. Only a year later the Coalition government published its own strategy which was very similar to its Labour predecessor, but went further in committing to consult on the introduction of standardised “plain” packaging of tobacco products, a novel measure then only under consideration in one country, Australia.

Following the consultation, in the run up to the election, the Coalition Government initially announced it would not proceed with standardised packaging. At which point parliament again took up its role as the guardian of public health and a cross-party group of peers tabled an amendment to a government bill to introduce standardised packaging. Aware of how strong cross-party support for the measure was, the Coalition Government decided, in line with the precedent established with the smokefree laws, to adopt the amendment.[5] And when the House of Lords passed an amendment to the same Bill to prohibit smoking in cars with children, the Coalition Government allowed a free vote on the measure in the Commons. [6] Both measures were passed by large majorities and are now in force. [7] [8]

Smoking rates have now dropped to their lowest recorded levels in England, [9] but smoking remains a public health epidemic, with hundreds of children starting smoking every day [10] and nearly 100,000 deaths in the UK each year. [11] The last Tobacco Control Plan expired at the end of 2015 and under pressure from Parliament the Government has committed to publishing its successor ‘shortly’ on more than one occasion.[12] [13] When the Government confirmed that standard packs regulations would be put to parliament before the last election [14], the Labour Health Spokesman congratulated the Secretary of State for Health Jeremy Hunt who responded by saying “Let’s hope both our children can grow up in a smoke-free generation.” [15] An aspiration we can all support, but if it is to be achieved we need a tough new Tobacco Control Plan mapping the steps to a smokefree future, without further delay.

You can read more information about the anniversary of smokefree legislation here.


[1] Department of Health. Smoking Kills: A White Paper on Tobacco. CM4177. The Stationery Office. 1998.

[2] House of Commons Health Committee. Smoking in Public Places. First report of Session 2005–6 Vols I-lll HC 485–1; HC 485-ll; HC 485-lll

[3]The amendment tabled on 10 January 2006 was supported by the following MPs all members of the Health Select Committee — 5 Labour, 3 Conservative, 1 Liberal Democrat and 1 Independent.

Rt Hon Kevin Barron MP (Labour)

Mr David Amess MP (Conservative)

Charlotte Atkins MP (Labour)

Mr Paul Burstow (Liberal Democrat)

Jim Dowd MP (Labour)

Anne Milton MP (Conservative)

Mike Penning MP (Conservative)

Dr Howard Stoate MP (Labour)

Dr Doug Naysmith MP (Labour)

Dr Richard Taylor MP (Independent)

[4] Public Whip. Health Bill — New Clause 5 — Smoke-free premises: exemptions — private clubs. 14 Feb 2006 at 18:47

[5] Hansard. Written Ministerial Statements. Health: Tobacco Control. 28 Nov 2013 : Column 24WS

[6] BBC Online. Ban on smoking in cars carrying children backed by Lords. 29 January 2014.

[7] Public Whip. Children and Families Bill — Offence of Smoking in a Private Vehicle When A Person Under 18 is Present. 10 Feb 2014 at 19:15

[8] Public Whip. Standardised Packaging of Tobacco Products Regulations 2015. 11 Mar 2015 at 17:53

[9] Statistics on smoking in England: NHS Digital 2017

[10] Hopkinson, NS., Lester-George, A., Ormiston-Smith, N., Cox, A. & Arnott, D. Child uptake of smoking by area across the UK. Thorax 2013. doi:10.1136/thoraxjnl-2013–204379

[11] ASH factsheet deaths from smoking

[12] Tobacco: Written question — 69400. Hansard. 18 April 2017

[13] Tobacco: Written question — 269. Hansard. 26 June 2017.

[14] House of Commons Library. Standardised packaging of tobacco products. 22 January 2015.

[15] Tweet interchange between Jeremy Hunt and Andy Burnham. Twitter. 22 January 2015.