Ex-DUP health minister favours outlawing of cigarettes - whilst former colleague calls idea 'dangerous' ambition of 'health lobby zealots'
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Former DUP MLA Jim Wells was reacting to news that the Labour Party is considering just such a measure.
However Mr Wells' former colleague Sammy Wilson, a DUP MP known for his laissez-faire beliefs, called the move "dangerous" and wondered where such policies would end.
“One of the things that was recommended to the government in one of their reviews was phasing out the sale of cigarettes altogether over time," he said.
“We’ll be consulting on that and a whole range of other measures.
“The New Zealand government are doing it. We want to see how that works. But I’m genuinely curious."
In New Zealand, a law has been passed which means that from this year, it will be illegal for anybody born after 2008 to buy cigarettes.
Those born before that date will continue to be allowed to buy them.
But by fixing a date of 2008, it means the minimum age for buying cigarettes will keep going up and up.
For example, someone trying to buy a pack of cigarettes in 10 years' time will have to show they are at least 23 years old.
Asked if he is mulling any similar measures, then-Stormont health minister Robin Swann said last year that this "will be considered within a NI context particularly during the ongoing review of our tobacco control strategy... I am keen to explore all avenues".
The fact Labour is now entertaining the idea shows that it is gaining currency at a national level, too.
‘MY FRIEND DIED FROM SMOKING IN HER MID-50s – IT WAS HORRENDOUS’
Jim Wells, who had been health minister during 2014/15, told the News Letter: "I've been following the New Zealand model closely. It still leaves 50-year-old people entitled to smoke – it's a gradual phase.
"When I was health minister I introduced plain paper packaging.
"It used to be that cigarette packages looked very glamourous with bright reds and blues."They were meant to look sort of sophisticated; purchasing that packet you thought you were the main man, as it were.
"There were all sorts of cries of outrage and all that, but it came to absolutely nothing."
He also clamped down on where cigarettes could be bought, restricting them to a special cabinet in shops and doing away with vending machines.
"Whilst the overall trend is positive in the number of people giving up cigarettes, we're nowhere near the overall UK target of 5%,” he said.
"Well, we are actually in North Down – but North Down tends to be an affluent, well-educated community.
"But you go into sort of hard-bitten areas like West Belfast, Foyle, and places like that, there's still a high dependency on cigarettes amongst those on low incomes who can perhaps least afford it."
Mr Wells said a friend of his recently died of lung cancer in her mid-50s, brought on by heavy smoking, "and the death that lady went through over six months was just horrendous".
He feels an onus exists to help minimise the number of such unpleasant fatalities.
He said the "New Zealand model" is "a good one", adding that the enforced used of seatbelts, airbags, banning drink-driving, and anti-speeding laws are all things people have come to accept in the name of preventing fatalities.
It was put to him that there is quite a difference between introducing measures to restrict something, and banning that something altogether.
"We'll still be left with a very high proportion of the population entitled to smoke," he said.
"But that will get less and less. We've already accepted that principle for under-18s. It's [being brought in] in a very calm, consistent, and staged manner. That will save lives."
‘HEALTH ZEALOTS – EMBOLDENED BY COVID – WANT TO DIRECT PEOPLE’S LIVES’
Meanwhile Sammy Wilson called the idea of such a ban would be "a massive step-change, and a very dangerous precedent".
A non-smoker himself, and one who deeply dislikes the practice, Mr Wilson nonetheless said: "If this is about saving the NHS and reducing the cost to the NHS, where do you stop this then?
"Do you say, right: there are probably more people who cause the NHS expenditure because they eat too much sweet stuff and are diabetic, or they eat too much fatty stuff and they're fat and have all types of heart disease.
"Having set the principle that you're stopping anybody smoking, or we're making a move towards a situation where you're not going to be able to buy cigarettes full stop, all the other things people do that cost the health service expenditure – are we going to stop them doing that as well?
"We all make bad choices! I make bad choices every time I got and eat fatty foods on the way home from work in the evening.
"It doesn't at the minute, but I'm sure eventually it'll have some health consequences for me. But it's a choice, which I want the freedom to be able to make!
"If anything, I don't like smoking. I don't like the smell, the impact it has.
"But there's a whole lot of things in life I don't like. Do I then dictate to people, according to the preferences of my lifestyle, what they can do as well?"
It was put to him that the government tells people they can't take many narcotics, for example.
"As a society, we've authorised out parliament to make those things illegal, full stop," he replied.
"It's different from saying we're going to make something legal for some people, and illegal for others."
He also noted that, with drugs, their illegal nature means the ongoing demand for them is "making money for criminal gangs, who'll still be prepared to break the law".
He concluded: "I think there are a cadre of people that are encouraged now by the way in which they were able to place all kinds of restrictions on people's lives during Covid.
"And there's now a bunch of zealots within that whole health industry and health lobby that are using the tactics used during Covid – fear, coercion, and legislation inappropriately applied - that they can start to direct people's lives for them.
"That's not the kind of society I want to live in."
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