The Guardian’s view on smoking and public health: the fight against big tobacco continues | Editorial

YesFifty years ago, the British government recognized that smoking caused lung cancer, thanks to a breakthrough in medical science. In an interview to mark the anniversary, Sir Richard Peto, a pioneer in this area, highlighted one aspect in which the discovery was significant. This led, he said, to a boost for public health comparable to 19th-century improvements in sewage and water quality.

The change in attitude toward smoking did not occur suddenly. The tobacco and vape bill championed by Rishi Sunak, which fell when he called an election, was the culmination of a decades-long process. If the next government resurrects the law – as seems likely given the inclusion of similar measures in Labour’s manifesto – it will be illegal to sell tobacco to anyone born after 2009, and vapers will be more controlled.

It seems extraordinary now, but millions of people did not accept that smoking was harmful in the 1990s. Sir Richard said smokers “didn’t believe it emotionally”: they were so invested in their habit and unwilling to think that the government would allow a dangerous product to be advertised. For decades, the UK government (along with others) opted for voluntary agreements rather than laws. In an extraordinary episode, Philip Morris, the tobacco company, filed an injunction against Thames TV because it objected to a documentary that used images of cowboys with lung diseases to challenge the image of the “Marlboro Man.”

Between 1951 and 1964, about half of UK doctors who had been smokers quit smoking. But a decade later, almost half of adults were still smoking, and as the death toll rose and evidence emerged of the harm caused by passive smoking, the pressure mounted. The World Health Organization began to refer to a smoking epidemic. Gradually, advertising became more restricted and health warnings intensified. The last Labor government ended tobacco sponsorship in sports (although Tony Blair helped secure an exemption for Formula One) and, in 2007, banned smoking in indoor public places.

In the UK, around 13% of adults (six million people) smoke and tobacco is associated with 80,000 deaths each year. Sunak’s decision to push for stricter controls was out of step with the instincts of his own party. But Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, provided support and drew attention to the hypocrisy of right-wing language around freedom and choice in relation to a harmful addiction.

It’s been 25 years since a Hollywood movie, The Insider, dramatized Big Tobacco’s efforts to muzzle its critics. Since then, awareness has grown about how oil and gas companies used the same manual to try to create doubt around science that threatened their profits. But this year in the UK the tobacco industry lost a crucial argument.

The Conservatives’ record on public health is atrocious. Low points include the delayed limit on bets on fixed-odds betting terminals, which caused Tracey Crouch to resign in 2018; and Boris Johnson’s rejection of a national food strategy. Rising malnutrition and poor dental health among children accompany rising poverty and are a grim legacy. The tobacco and vaping industry will continue to lobby politicians and push new products. But if pre-election promises are kept, people growing up today are likely to get greater protection against this deadly habit, seven decades after the risks of smoking were established.

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