The British government is under pressure from a number of leading scientists and doctors to support a bill to ban tobacco advertising, at the same time as ministers are trying to stop just such a bill passing through the Scottish parliament.

In a letter to The Times on Wednesday, the health practitioners – among them Nobel prize winner and director general of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund Paul Nurse – attacked the government for not doing more to secure a ban.

“There is no point in pumping cash into the NHS if you allow tobacco companies to fill the cancer, respiratory and cardiac wards by promoting smoking,” said the letter. “It is not often that ministers have the chance to do something that will make a major difference to health, be popular with the public and cost almost nothing.”

The signatories also cited government statistics that suggest banning such advertising would save 3,000 lives and the ever cash-strapped NHS £40 million a year.

A ban on tobacco ads was a manifesto commitment of the governing Labour Party both in the 1997 and 2001 general elections. Indeed, a bill was drawn up to forbid outdoor and print advertising as well as sponsorship of sports events by tobacco companies. However, the bill mysteriously disappeared from the legislative programme following June’s general election triumph, to the reported dismay of the Department of Health [WAMN: 19-Jun-01].

Now a private members bill, exactly the same as the shelved government effort, is to be introduced by Liberal Democrat peer Lord Clement-Jones on Friday. The letter called on health secretary Alan Milburn to back the bill, since without government support it stands scant chance of becoming law.

A separate private members bill will also be introduced by the Scottish National Party next week in Scotland’s parliament. However, leader of the House of Commons Robin Cook is urging Scottish ministers not to lend their support to the measure, claiming it makes no sense to ban tobacco ads north of the border but not in the rest of the UK.

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