Ministers are expected to break a promise to announce an action plan to tackle smoking in their latest controversial U-turn on public health, Whitehall insiders say.
The government had committed several times to publish a tobacco control plan “later this year”. However, the health secretary, Thérèse Coffey, has no intention of keeping that promise, according to officials with knowledge of her intentions.
Coffey, who is also Deputy Prime Minister, smokes and has previously accepted hospitality from the tobacco industry. Since becoming an MP in 2010, she has voted in the Commons against a number of measures to curb smoking, including the ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces, the ban on smoking in cars with children and forcing cigarettes to be sold in plain packs.
Liz Truss, the prime minister – a close friend of Coffey’s – is also a long-time skeptic of tobacco control, who has often opposed legislation to curb smoking. She has also appointed former tobacco lobbyists as part of her team of Downing Street advisers.
In February, Sajid Javid, the then health secretary, first committed the government to presenting a tobacco action plan by the end of 2022. In April Maggie Throup, then Minister of Public Health, echoed this commitment and timeline. She stressed that the plan was vital to help the government realize its ambition to make Britain “smoke-free” by 2030 to reduce the number of deaths from smoking.
However, Whitehall sources say the plan has been dropped since Coffey became health secretary on September 6 and will no longer be published.
There is speculation that proposals to be included in the plan may yet appear in another form, possibly in the 10-year cancer plan that ministers intend to publish.
Insiders also say there is “no chance” that recommendations to reduce smoking, which ex-Barnardo’s chief executive Dr. Javed Khan, put forward in a government ordered audit will ever be followed. They included raising the legal age to buy tobacco by a year each year and putting an extra £125m into efforts to encourage smokers to quit, possibly by imposing a new “polluter pays” tax on tobacco companies and requiring , that sellers of tobacco products have a licence.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said it was “inaccurate” to suggest the tobacco control plan was being dropped – but did not say if or when it would publish it.
“This is inaccurate and no decisions have been taken,” a DHSC spokesman said. The department also insisted that it may still be able to advance some of Khan’s proposals.
“We are currently considering the wide range of recommendations set out in the Khan Review and how best to take these forward. We will outline our next steps for the plan in due course,” the spokesman added.
The government first committed in 2019 to making the UK “smoke-free” by 2030. This is defined as getting the proportion of adults who smoke down from 14.1% to just 5%. Ministers are under pressure to take new steps against smoking, both because the number of people being diagnosed with and dying from cancer is increasing, and also because smoking-related diseases are one of the main causes of avoidable death.
DHSC remains committed to the 2030 target. However, Cancer Research UK warned last month that ministers were seven years late in delivering it.
Khan made it clear in his review, published in Junethat ministers needed to accelerate the reduction of smoking by 40% if they were to meet the 2030 target.
Labor and anti-smoking campaigners expressed alarm at the potential U-turn on the tobacco control plan. It follows a review commissioned by the Ministry of Finance of measures to tackle obesity and Coffey scrapping Javid’s promised white paper on inequalities in health.
“The Conservatives are on an ideological mission to rip up common sense measures that benefit public health and ease the demands on the NHS. The irony is that preventing relegation will end up costing the taxpayer more in the long run,” said Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary.
Deborah Arnott, CEO of Action on Smoking and health, said: “Dropping the Khan recommendations and no new tobacco control plan would be a separate goal for the government.
“Smoking has an exceptionally devastating impact on health. It causes disease and death on a huge scale, is the leading cause of cancer and costs the NHS £2.4 billion every year to treat. Ministers should set out detailed plans to tackle this scourge on society as an urgent matter.”