Health minister who is wary of "big bossy governments" supports plain packaging and the smoking ban
Saturday, April 20, 2013 at 10:49
Simon Clark

We got an interesting insight into the mind of ambitious public health minister (and ex-smoker) Anna Soubry yesterday.

Speaking to John Humphrys on BBC Radio 4's Today programme she acknowledged the problem of "big bossy governments".

Almost in the same breath, however, she described the smoking ban as "one of the real triumphs of the last government – I’ll give them full credit for doing that".

She also declared her support for standardised (not plain) packaging ("It’s very colourful, very intricate") saying, "I’ve seen the evidence. I’ve seen the consultation. I’ve been personally persuaded of it."

Good for her. One teeny weeny problem.

Soubry wasn't speaking as a constituency MP. She was on the programme as a member of the government.

Other government ministers and officials, including the prime minister himself, have declared as recently as this week that no decision has been made on plain packaging.

Repeatedly we have been told that ministers and civil servants still have an "open mind" on the subject.

But not the public health minister. Oh no. She's seen the evidence and "seen the consultation" (eh?) and supports the measure even though the DH has yet to publish its long overdue report on the consultation.

Has Soubry seen the report? If so why has it not been published so everyone can read it and decide for themselves whether it justifies the policy that she so openly supports.

Here's a transcript of the latter part of the interview which I understand was primarily about minimum pricing of alcohol:

Soubry: But John, you know as well as I do that these are often difficult decisions, and one of the things that’s really important in public health is that you don’t have big bossy governments seeming to crack down on people who actually don’t have the problem.

Humphrys: You did on smoking and it worked.

Soubry: Sorry?

Humphrys: You did on smoking and it worked.

Soubry: No, no, no, not everybody smokes. So when we took action to stop smoking in open places – one of the real triumphs of the last government – I’ll give them full credit for doing that; but ... that was affecting a minority of people because smokers are the minority. There is work to be done on smoking and that’s the next debate that we’ve got to have. We’ve had a consultation on what’s called “plain” – it’s not. It’s very colourful, very intricate but standardised packaging and there’s a real debate now to be had on whether or not we should introduce it like they have in Australia.

Humphrys: Are you in favour of that?

Soubry: I am.

Humphrys: So it’s going to happen.

Soubry: Oh no, it doesn’t mean to say it’s going to happen because we haven’t had the debate. We need now to have that debate. I’ve seen the evidence. I’ve seen the consultation. I’ve been personally persuaded of it but that doesn’t mean to say that all my colleagues in government, on both sides of the house, are persuaded and that’s the debate that we now have to have.

Odd, isn't it, that someone who is wary of "big bossy governments" should support a measure as extreme as plain (sorry, standardised) packaging.

Perhaps it's because, as Soubry says, smokers are a minority and minorities can be bossed around (or worse) without fear of a backlash.

How sad, in this day and age, to hear any politician - but especially one in government - use a group's minority status as an excuse to legislate them into extinction.

That's not bossy. That's bullying.

Meanwhile, whatever happened to collective responsibility? Either Soubry is a member of the government and accepts the official line that government still has an "open mind" on plain packaging, or she steps down and supports the measure from the backbenches.

One other point. Soubry believes the smoking ban has been a success ("one of the real triumphs of the last government") because it only affected smokers ("the minority").

Tell that to the non-smokers whose local pub closed (directly or indirectly) because of the smoking ban, or the bar worker who lost his job.

Tell the non-smoking members of Britain's working men's clubs, many of which also closed in the aftermath of the ban.

If it was such a "triumph" why doesn't the government review the impact of the ban (as the previous government promised it would). As part of that review they could ask people if they support an amendment that would allow separate, well-ventilated smoking rooms in pubs and clubs. Only then will we see how popular the existing legislation is.

I could go on but somehow I don't think the minister for public health is listening. Open mind? Don't make me laugh.

See also: Anna Soubry and the silent majority

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