The anti-tobacco lobby within the DUP has won out over those within the party who have argued against new curbs on smoking, the party’s future health minister has suggested.
Jim Wells, who is a passionate opponent of tobacco, told an Assembly debate that those in his party who argue that personal freedom should trump potential health benefits realised that there was an “inexorable” tide against them.
His comments – which were reinforced by later remarks from Health Minister Edwin Poots – appear to confirm a change of stance in the DUP over recent weeks away from the position of those such as Ian Paisley Jr who have argued against further restrictions on smoking.
Two weeks ago Mr Poots supported a request to allow Westminster to legislate for plain packaging of cigarettes, something fiercely contested by Mr Paisley Jr and by some others in the DUP.
That debate saw several DUP MLAs – including former Finance Minister Sammy Wilson – strongly argue against what Mr Poots was proposing.
But yesterday Mr Wilson and other opponents of the changes were not present in the chamber for the final stage of the Tobacco Retailers Bill, which aims to deal with those who persistently sell cigarettes to young people.
Mr Wells told MLAs: “To those who say that this is a case of the nanny state and is unacceptable – I wonder why they are not here today – I say that the tide is inexorable.”
NI21 MLA John McCallister interjected to highlight that “most of the people who have said that this is a case of the nanny state are his party colleagues”, to which Mr Wells responded: “Yes, and I think they, by their absence this morning, realise that the tide is, indeed, inexorable.
“They have always made it very clear that their opposition is based not on health issues but on employment issues. They are defending their constituents’ jobs.
“They do not want anyone, for one moment, to be encouraged to smoke, whether they are under 18 or otherwise. They are defending their constituents and economic welfare, particularly that in Ballymena. They realise, and all rational people realise, that the tide is inexorable.”
Mr Wells went on to refer to those who oppose banning smoking in cars with children as “pseudo Jeremiahs”.
Last week Mr Paisley Jr, whose North Antrim constituency has a Japan Tobacco International plant, told Parliament: “A person who lights up and smokes in front of a child ... is a prat, in my view, and we as a House should not be legislating on that, but educating. We do not require legislation ...”
But yesterday Mr Poots delivered what seemed to be a public rebuke to his party colleague.
Speaking with force, Mr Poots said: “When it comes to banning smoking in cars, I do not see where the nanny state comes in.”
Edwin Poots said that Northern Ireland has the highest levels of smoking in the UK, with eight per cent of 11-16 year olds smoking.
The UUP’s Roy Beggs told the Assembly that his party supported the bill and he referred to “recent media reports of tobacco sales in the Ballymena area” where Sunday newspapers reported that DUP MLA Paul Frew’s father had sold their reporters illegal tobacco.
Alliance’s Kieran McCarthy and the SDLP’s Pat Ramsey – both former smokers – said that their parties supported the bill and its aims of reducing smoking.
The Sinn Fein chair of the cross-party Health Committee, Maeve McLaughlin, said that it welcomed Mr Poots’ actions in bringing forward the bill and praised Health Department civil servants who had worked with the committee.
Yesterday the bill passed its final stage in the Assembly.