The coalition government is planning “radical” action to curb teenage smoking, ban cheap alcohol and to encourage mothers to breastfeed at work, Health secretary Andrew Lansley has said.
But he came under fire from the Tory right for attempting to “micro-manage” people’s lives.
Mr Lansley confirmed that the government would be:
- Consulting on the introduction of plain packaging for cigarettes;
- Banning low-cost alcohol sales;
- Piloting the introduction of workplace breastfeeding areas by private employers.
Mr Lansley defended the government’s approach, insisting that while it wanted to avoid over-regulation, sometimes it was appropriate for the state to intervene in people’s lives for the sake of their health.
“We are very keen to ensure that we don’t over-regulate; that we minimise regulation,” he told BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show.
“We have tried a lot of things and we do need occasionally to intervene. But more than that we need to support people. Especially some of the poorest in our society need to have the greatest support because health inequalities are too wide.
“We need to deliver improvements in the health of the poorest in this country the fastest.”
On cigarette packaging, he said that smoking-related illnesses accounted for 80,000 deaths a year.
“We have to treat smoking as a major public health issue. We have to reduce the extent to which young people start smoking,” he said.
“One of the issues is the extent to which display of cigarettes and brands does draw young people into smoking in the first place. This something were are going to consult on.”
He said that he also wanted to improve breastfeeding rates, with dedicated areas in the workplace where mothers can breastfeed and store expressed milk, and greater flexibility over when they can take their breaks.
“I think that employers recognise that they have a social responsibility as well and that is what we are working on,” he said.
“Our breastfeeding rate in this country is amongst the lowest in Europe. About eight weeks after babies are born, the breastfeeding rate is 46% and it should be higher than that. So we do need to support mothers to breastfeed.”
Reports suggested supermarkets will be banned from selling wine, beer and spirits below a national minimum price, which would be determined by adding together VAT and the cost of duty on the product.
Licences could be removed from outlets that breach the rules, and ministers were also said to be considering reviewing the duty paid on beer with a view to hiking the rate for super-strength drinks - possibly as part of a forthcoming Police and Social Responsibility Bill.
The tobacco industry warned the government could face a legal challenge if it presses ahead with plain packaging.
Tobacco Manufacturers’ Association chief executive Chris Ogden said: “Whilst there are currently no specific government proposals for plain tobacco packaging, the TMA is strongly opposed to the principle of plain packaging and would expect a genuine consultation and regulatory impact assessment if the government decides to pursue this further.
“We do not believe any plans for plain packaging are based on sound public policy, nor any compelling evidence.
“Moves to prevent tobacco companies from exercising their intellectual property rights would place the government in breach of legal obligations relating to intellectual property, international trade and European law.”
He added: “Plain packs are also likely to lead to yet further increases in the smuggling of tobacco products and plain packs would make it so much easier for a counterfeiter to copy than existing branded packs, making it even more difficult for a consumer to differentiate between genuine and counterfeit products.”