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by Andrew Learmonth
31 March 2021
15 years off the fags: the story of Scotland's smoking ban

Jack McConnell and Andy Kerr hold a giant cigarette with the help of school children from Firr Hill ahead of the 2005 debate on the smoking ban.

15 years off the fags: the story of Scotland's smoking ban

There are many places we could start the story of Scotland’s smoking ban. 

We could go back to 1985, with the first of many attempts by George Foulkes, the then Labour MP for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley, to change the law in Westminster. 

Or we could start in 1999 with Labour MSP Hugh Henry’s push, or even in 2002, with the petition from pupils at Firrhill High School in Edinburgh, which was then taken up by SNP MSP Kenny Gibson. He was all set to introduce a bill before losing his seat at the next election. 

For this telling of the story we’ll start in 2003, in the office of the SNP chief whip, where the newly elected West of Scotland MSP Stewart Maxwell was being asked what his interests are, and what he wants to try and achieve over the next four years.

After expressing an interest in public health, Bruce Crawford MSP asks his freshman colleague if he fancies taking on Gibson’s smoking ban plan.

Maxwell is enthusiastic. Working with the parliamentary clerks, he drafts and tables legislation, without much in the way of opposition or support. However, it soon attracts the attention of the media.

“I remember the press pack in the parliament thought this was the funniest idea they’d ever heard,” Maxwell tells Holyrood. “Can you imagine a Scottish pub without a fag? Just crazy. So they thought it was extremely humorous and downright stupid.” 

“My first radio interview on it was on the Today programme, and the very first question was, ‘so you’re not interested in a career in politics?’” he adds.

The publicity prompted fierce reaction. One furious smoker even threatened to kneecap the MSP, another sent him a death threat made up of letters cut out of newspapers. 

No one was charged. Police were unable to find any fingerprints, the writer of the threat had obviously been wearing gloves. However, he did lick the envelope. His DNA is still on file. 

As momentum grew, there were some grumblings within his party from people who feared it would be unpopular politically.

“I mean Alex Salmond was not a fan at all. But he was in Westminster, he could do hee haw about it. Nicola supported it,” Maxwell says.

“There were quite a number of people in the group, some of them smokers, and other non-smokers and it just didn’t sit easily with them.”

He added: “There was an issue inside the group but it wasn’t a problem. I was afraid of it developing into a problem.”

In a bid to stop that from happening, he took a motion banning smoking in public places to SNP party conference, where it was overwhelmingly backed by delegates, tying the hands of his colleagues. 

His bill reached committee stage where the Labour-Liberal Democrat run executive would soon be forced to make a decision. 

Maxwell says he found enthusiastic support from junior health minister Tom McCabe. 

At the time there was a voluntary code in place, with pubs asked to display stickers outlining their smoking policy close to the entrance. 

This was meant to stave off any attempt at a ban, but it proved utterly ineffective, much to the frustration of McCabe. 

He met with Maxwell in the October of 2003, and weeks later he unveiled the executive’s Tobacco Action Plan, which included a consultation on an outright ban. 

It’s impossible to talk about Scotland’s smoking ban without talking about McCabe. The Labour MSP - who died in 2015 at the age of 61 from cancer – long pushed reluctant colleagues to go further. 

Jack McConnell readily admits that he was sceptical of the need for a full ban until convinced by his minister.

He said: “Tom McCabe was instrumental in persuading me basically that if we went for a partial ban - which is what was being debated in England at the time – then every pub and restaurant in the poorest, least healthy communities of Scotland would still have smoking. And every pub and restaurant, in the healthiest, most prosperous parts of Scotland, would have their own voluntary smoking ban.”

McConnell said part of his initial reluctance stemmed from a worry about the legitimacy of the still young devolved assembly.

He said: “I wasn’t certain that the parliament had gained enough authority in the eyes of the public to restrict liberties to that extent. And I was also a bit concerned about the balance between civil liberties and state intervention.

“But over the next 12 months there were two things that changed my mind. The first was that although the consultation was very divided and there was a massive campaign by the tobacco industry to stop any new legislation, every single representation I got from children or young people wanted at least a ban on smoking in public places. 

“That was really decisive for me. So by the time we reached 2004, I was almost convinced. The only issue in my head was could we carry the public?”

The second thing was an encounter in a bar in Dublin in August that moved him from sceptic to enthusiast. Unbeknownst to even his own cabinet, he and an adviser headed over to Ireland a day ahead of an official visit and went on a pub crawl to chat to people about how they found the ban that had been in place there since March 2004.

“We met an old guy in the pub, and he told me that he had been really angry when the Irish government had proposed the ban,” McConnell said. “But he’d been a 40 a day smoker for most of his life and now he was down to three a day.

“He said it was the best decision the government had ever made.”

“That was an absolute clincher,” he added.

By the November, the Scottish Executive said they would bring in their own legislation to ban smoking in public places.

Lobbyists ramped up their opposition. MSPs were told it would lead to hundreds of pubs closing, leaving thousands out of work.

There were warnings of poll-tax like protests. There were even claims it could lead to a spike in domestic abuse because smokers would be at home rather than the pub. And more smokers at home would ultimaely lead to more house fires. 

The pressure on MSPs was immense. For the Labour administration the plan caused some friction with colleagues in Westminster 

The Airdrie and Shotts MP, John Reid, who was then serving as health secretary in Tony Blair’s cabinet famously described a smoking ban as an “obsession of the learned middle class”.

“What enjoyment does a 21-year-old single mother of three living in a council sink estate get?The only enjoyment sometimes they have is to have a cigarette,” he said.

He and McConnell clashed at the Labour party conference in Brighton in 2004, where, a party source told the Scotsman, there had been a “frank exchange of views”.

In England, the Labour government initially wanted to ban smoking only in those pubs serving food. Scotland, they felt, should do similar. 

Andy Kerr told us: “I have to say one of the dimensions to this is Westminster, they were not too chuffed. But actually if you’ve got sound evidence, and I would argue the moral arguments as well as the evidential arguments in terms of data, then you just need to power ahead.”

McConnell agreed: “We never ever doubted we we’re doing the right thing. And we watched as down south the cabinet got itself into a complete mess by trying to fudge the issue, and eventually had to follow us a year later.”

“There was some anger,” he added. “Some Scottish MPs supported us and some didn’t. It wasn’t their decision, it was our decision.”

In the end, at the stage three debate in June 2005, only the Tories voted against the ban. Dr Nanette Milne, the party’s health spokesperson at the time, wanted “a more reasoned approach to smoking in enclosed public places.”

“In recent years, there have been great strides towards smoke-free provision. For example, buses, trains, airlines, many public buildings, workplaces and restaurants are now smoke free and pubs are beginning to follow suit. I have no doubt that that trend would, without legislation, have increased anyway in response to public demand,” she told MSPs during the debate.

After the vote, came the preparation. McConnell puts a large part of the ban’s success down to the Scottish Executive’s marketing team and the campaign which built up until it came in on 26 March. 

“It was all about taking pride in the fact that Scotland was doing this. It was about the long term public health of the country, so it didn’t become about politicians and didn’t become about restrictions. It became positive, forward looking, pride inducing, chest beating.”

“I think they transformed the public mood,” he added. “Again with really good preparation, working with all the different stakeholders, clarity of guidance - how often in the past 12 months has clarity of guidance been an issue? - the quality of the marketing and completeness of the messaging ultimately led to the day when it was brought being such a big success.”

McConnell said the night before the ban was a sleepless one for him: “We had been told by the lobbyists and the campaigners for two years that there would be fighting in the streets, and there would be mass arrests and the police couldn’t cope with it and that we were destroying the fabric of our communities.”

Andy Kerr however, slept like a baby. “I didn’t have any sleepless nights. It was all very exciting to be honest.”

He added: “I’d been to New York. I spoke to folks in Ireland, I was absolutely solid in the work we’d done right up to that date.”

The ban worked. Research by the anti-smoking charity ASH found a 17 per cent fall in the number of heart attack admissions to Scottish hospitals after 10 years of the ban being in place. 

For McConnell the ban was significant not just for public health, but for devolution.

“I think it was the moment when the Scottish Parliament came of age. It was a moment when the people of Scotland accepted the Scottish Parliament could legislate for something that they might not agree with, but that they would accept because the parliament had the authority to do that. 

“I think it was a really, really significant moment in the history of modern Scottish politics and devolution.”

He adds: “You’ve got to choose the right time to do something as radical as this. You’ve got to legislate well, but then you’ve got to implement well. I think, modern governments don’t always implement well. And I think this is a textbook example of how to do something radical and bring the people with you.”

Read the most recent article written by Andrew Learmonth - Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, dies aged 99

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