Reid's smokeless zone

THERE'S nothing like the evangelism of a man who's quit smoking, especially when he just happens to be the Secretary of State for Health. EADT political editor GRAHAM DINES last week talked to Dr John Reid.

THERE'S nothing like the evangelism of a man who's quit smoking, especially when he just happens to be the Secretary of State for Health. EADT political editor GRAHAM DINES last week talked to Dr John Reid.

JOHN Reid's outward charm belies his reputation as a bruising, tough-talking – and allegedly – foul-mouthed, Scot.

It was this no nonsense approach to politics that persuaded the Prime Minister last year to make him only the second chairman of the Labour Party last year, with a brief to ensure Labour never descended into the type of fractious and suicidal behaviour that ruined the Tories in the 1990s.

When he was in Ipswich earlier this year, his off-microphone reaction to Labour-controlled Suffolk county council's 18.5% Council Tax increase "when we've it the most generous settlement ever" could never be reprinted here.

At the heart of Labour Party politics for 24 years, he spent two years as an adviser to Labour leader Neil Kinnock before being elected MP for Motherwell North in 1987.

He held the seat until 1997 when boundary changes saw him moving to Hamilton North & Bellshill, where in 2001 he had a majority of 13,561 over the second-placed Scottish Nationalist candidate.

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He held a string of Shadow ministerial appointments, and after the 1997 election was appointed Minister for the Armed Forces, becoming Minister for Transport the following year.

In 1999, he joined the Cabinet as Secretary of State for Scotland and after Labour's second victory switched to the Northern Ireland Office. His short spell as Labour Party chairman ended in this year's Cabinet reshuffle.

It's said that when he walked into Tony Blair's office as the reshuffle was taking place, he took one look at the Prime Minister's face and said, ""Oh no, it's not health!"

Health it was, perhaps the toughest domestic brief job in politics. And it's been his duty, as a Scottish MP, to pilot through major reforms to the NHS in England. He has no qualms because he believes devolution should not be a barrier to a United Kingdom MP from holding any position in government of voting on purely English legislation.

The day we met, he was seething over the House of Lords' continual rejection of his flagship NHS reforms legislation including foundation hospitals. "It is not up to the non-elected Lords to overthrow a Bill approved by the elected House of Commons," he declared.

He turned his anger on Tory and Liberal Democrat peers, even though a sizeable number of Labour MPs voted against his plans in the Commons, at one point last Wednesday reducing the Government's majority to 13. But using the Winston Churchill maxim that a majority of one is good enough, he savaged peers for trying to overturn the will of the Commons.

In the end, the Lords relented. He's never been a fan of the upper chamber, having voted in the Lords reform debates to do away with the upper chamber altogether.

When that was defeated, he backed a wholly appointed second chamber. "We cannot have to elected houses of parliament competing with each other. The Commons has to prevail."

Politics is a stressful occupation and until recently, to keep himself under control, he would turn to cigarettes, smoking several packs a day

The Labour government launched the White Paper "Smoking Kills" in December 1998, establishing Stop Smoking services. As the move to give up the weed grew apace, Government buildings became cigarette free, with either rooms designated for smokers or those wishing to indulge being kicked out on to the pavements outside.

As Dr Reid joked: "There used to be smoking rooms in the Ministry of Defence and the Northern Ireland Department – it was called my office."

Dr Reid gave up the habit in January this year – before becoming Health Secretary – and he's also gone on the wagon, happily sipping Diet Coke when everyone about him is knocking back the alcohol.

"I would never dictate to people on what they should and shouldn't do. I know from experience that giving up smoking is extremely difficult, it's one of the hardest things I have ever done.

"And I don't say that every building in England should be non-smoking. To make a total ban is open to attack as creating a Nanny state.

"But we need to help people who want to smoke. The health benefits are enormous and we should provide as much support as possible to the seven out of 10 smokers who say they want to quit."

Smoking is the biggest preventable killer of people in the United Kingdom. It results in around 120,000 deaths a year from cancer, heart disease and other causes.

But because of devolution, Dr Reid is only responsible for England – and he's drawn up detailed figures for the success rates of the Stop Smoking services in each strategic health authority.

"Latest figures show that, across England, NHS Stop Smoking services are achieving a 10% increase in the number of smokers who manage to quit," says Dr Reid. "But there are wide regional variations in performance, with some of the best areas motivating six times as many smokers to give up as other areas.

"Smokers in the north east and north west are quitting tobacco in the largest numbers, with more than 10,000 people reporting they have given up cigarettes between April and June this year."

Firmly in the Secretary of State's sights are the "soft" south and east. There are nine English regions – and the east which covers Suffolk, Essex, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire is shamefully ranked at number seven in the list of smokers successfully giving up cigarettes after having set a quit date.

Broken down even further, of the 28 strategic health authorities across England, the Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire SHA is ranked 16th while Essex is 19th. The number of people in Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire setting a quit date in the period April-June this year was 2,182. Of these, 1,202 successfully gave up (51%). In Essex, 927 set a quit date, with 663 (72%) reporting after four weeks they had given up.

The bottom 20 SHAs have been told bluntly by Dr Reid that they've got to do better. Everyone who wants to give up smoking must be helped.

"Tens of thousands of people have given up smoking with the help of NHS Stop Smoking services. We want many more to break free from this addiction.

"That's why we are investing nearly £40m. in smoking cessation services over the next three years.

"It is clear that some of the Stop Smoking services have very good success rates while others are performing less well. We need the areas with the worst performances to learn from the best."

Dr Reid is putting the Government's wallet where his mouth is. Earlier this month, the Department of Health reached agreements with three suppliers of smoking cessation products enabling primary care trusts to receive a number of nicotine patches and gum free of charge – enough to help at least 10,000 additional smokers to give up.

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