Opinion: Smoking ban is a victory for democracy

Peter Cardy, chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Relief

I was with some colleagues in a bar and the vote in Parliament for a smoking ban in England was live on the big screen.

We turned to each other with relief and quietly punched the air with satisfaction at such a convincing majority. The manager joined in. "Why would I want my staff to be inhaling smoke that could kill them?" he asked - not what you might expect from someone whose livelihood depends on getting people into a bar, but he went straight to the heart of the issue.

During the long argument, the antis tried to position a ban as an intrusion on civil liberties and human rights. The former Secretary of State for Health and ex-smoker John Reid implied that banning smoking was a middle class preoccupation and, consistent to the last, voted to allow smoking in some pubs and private clubs. The present incumbent, Patricia Hewitt, meanwhile, voted for the full ban - an option she felt unable to endorse officially because it wasn't in the Labour Party manifesto.

Alliances of voluntary bodies played a central role in persuading MPs that this was not a nanny state measure, but a central issue for public health. The UK Lung Cancer Coalition brought together lung disease specialists with charities and pharmaceutical companies. Smokefree Action was led by Ash and included the major cancer, asthma, lung and heart disease charities, and doctors' associations. Latterly, we collaborated with the hospitality industry, which saw how bad for business a partial ban would have been.

Of course, this wasn't about freedom - it was about the terrible consequences of exposure to your own and second-hand tobacco smoke, which is just as poisonous to the patrons and staff of a private club as a public bar.

There are 37,000 lung cancer cases in Britain every year, most of them quickly fatal and most the result of tobacco smoke. Lung cancer remains the most appalling of conditions and one that Macmillan nurses see day in and day out - a virtual death sentence within months of diagnosis.

This was a bizarre episode in the history of the Labour administration, characterised by pointless dithering and arrant cowardice instead of leadership.

The legislation that will do more than any other single step open to government to cut avoidable deaths was opposed by ministers, supported by senior civil servants and finally forced to a free vote by coalitions of voluntary bodies. It was democracy in action and I'm glad we were all there together.

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