People could die because of Thérèse Coffey’s “ultra-libertarian ideological” reluctance to crack down on smoking and obesity, a Conservative ex-health minister has warned.
The strongly worded criticism of the health secretary came from Dr Dan Poulter, a Tory MP and NHS doctor who served as a health minister in the coalition government from 2012 to 2015.
Poulter claims Coffey’s “hostility to what the extreme right call ‘nanny statism’” is stopping her from taking firm action against the “major killers” of tobacco and bad diet.
His intervention in an opinion piece for the Guardian was prompted by Coffey making clear that she opposed banning adults from smoking in cars containing children, even though the practice was outlawed in 2015 and is credited with reducing young people’s exposure to secondhand smoke.
The government’s widely anticipated scrapping of measures to curb obesity such as the sugar tax and ditching of the tobacco control plan and health inequalities white paper – both of which previous health ministers had promised to publish – have led Poulter to brand Coffey’s stance “deeply alarming”.
He writes: “More smoking and more obesity means more illness, more pressure on the NHS and shorter lives, particularly amongst the poorest in society.
“I am acutely concerned that the health secretary’s ideological hostility to what history shows is government’s potentially very positive role in protecting us against these grave threats to our health will exacerbate the problems they already pose.
“At its worst such a radically different approach to public health could cost lives, as it will inevitably lead to more people smoking and becoming dangerously overweight.”
The Guardian disclosed last week that officials in Whitehall believe that Coffey has dropped plans to publish the tobacco control plan, which was due out by the end of the year.
The health secretary, who is herself a smoker, has consistently voted against moves to curb smoking since she became the MP for Suffolk Coastal in 2010 and has also accepted £1,100 in hospitality and gifts from the tobacco firm Gallaher.
Coffey is ignoring the “ethical and practical” duty on governments to tackle “the great scourges of our health, notably smoking, unhealthy food and excess drinking” and has “shattered” a longstanding consensus on state intervention stretching back to the work by the then-health secretary Norman Fowler on HIV and Aids in the 1990s, Poulter added.
Health charities endorsed Poulter’s remarks. Deborah Arnott, the chief executive of Action on Smoking and Health, said: “Libertarian ideology is as inadequate to improve public health as it was to drive economic growth. Just as the government’s failed economic strategy came straight from the playbook of the Institute of Economic Affairs, so does this visceral opposition to the so-called ‘nanny state’ and obsession with the free market.
“It wasn’t the free market which delivered the fastest rates of decline in smoking in Europe in the first two decades of this century.”
Katherine Jenner, the director of the Obesity Health Alliance, a grouping of 50 health and medical organisations, said: “The alliance shares Dr Poulter’s grave concerns. MPs don’t want their constituents living with chronic illness, and the public want it to be easier to make healthier choices. While there was some scepticism about the soft drinks industry levy when it was introduced by the Conservatives in 2018, it has led to sugar consumption falling by 30g per household per week, whilst not affecting sales. Now 71% of the public want companies to remove more sugar and salt from products.”
She added: “Abandoning key obesity prevention measures is unfairly putting people at risk of developing life-limiting physical and mental health conditions. Government analysis projected that NHS costs attributable to overweight and obesity could reach £9.7bn by 2050. The health secretary can progress with these health-promoting policies and still create a freer society; free from the harm caused by unhealthy food and drink.”
Coffey did not respond to Poulter’s remarks. But a Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “The tobacco control plan has not been scrapped and the government remains committed to its smoke free ambition by 2030.
“Tackling obesity also remains a priority for the government. Having a fit and healthy population is essential for a thriving economy and we remain committed to helping people live healthier lives.”