London (CNSNews.com) - A compromise bill that would allow exemptions to a public smoking ban may run afoul of European human rights law, a group of British lawmakers said in a report issued Wednesday.
Lobby groups on both sides of the debate say the report, which also stated that a ban wouldn't interfere with the human rights of smokers, makes a total prohibition on smoking in public places more likely.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights said that an exemption in the anti-smoking bill for pubs that don't serve food as well as private clubs" gives rise to differential treatment of employees and members of the public."
Employees and customers of smoke-free bars would be better treated under the law than those who work or frequent places where smoking is allowed, the committee said.
The committee said a "discriminatory effect" could result, compounded by "evidence (which) suggests that both pubs not serving food and membership clubs tend to be in the most deprived areas."
The committee, which is responsible for reviewing legislation for compliance with British and European Union human rights legislation, said it had written to Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt demanding further evidence backing the compromise legislation.
The joint committee also considered the impact on the human rights of smokers, and determined that because the bill does not extend to private homes, it does not violate European laws on respect for private life.
Simon Clark, director of the pro-smoking group FOREST, said the committee failed to take into account the rights of business owners.
"We accept that smokers don't necessary have a right to smoke wherever they want, but pubs, restaurants and nightclubs are private businesses," he said. "The proprietors should have a right to choose a policy that best serves their business."
As the British government has launched a media campaign to try to discourage people from smoking at home, Clark said that ruling that a ban did not violate the human rights of smokers because it doesn't extend to private residences amounted to "hypocrisy."
"It's depressing that in a free and tolerant society, politicians appear to be eager to walk all over the rights of a significant minority of people," he said.
But anti-smoking groups argued that any ban should be applied to all pubs and bars in the interests of fairness.
"There are quite a lot of pubs that don't serve food and unfortunately these are concentrated in poorer communities," said Carol Level, spokeswoman for Action on Smoking and Health (ASH). "A total ban will be better for the health of the nation."
The release of the Joint Committee report is the latest action putting pressure on Prime Minister Tony Blair's administration to put forward a comprehensive ban that would outlaw smoking in all public buildings.
Under a compromise hammered out last year, only establishments serving food would be subject to the ban. Several prominent politicians belonging to Blair's Labor Party have expressed their dissatisfaction with the compromise, and the prime minister himself has hinted that he may support broader restrictions than the ones proposed.
On Tuesday, Labor Party lawmakers said they would propose an amendment to the bill that would remove all exemptions and implement a blanket ban by mid-2007.
The are also pushing for a "free vote" on the bill and the amendment, a declaration that would release members of Parliament from any obligation to vote along the party line.
Labor MP Kevin Barron, chair of the House of Commons Health Committee, said he was "quite optimistic" that a free vote would take place.
"If carried, our amendment will greatly strengthen that part of the bill which aims to protect the public from the dangers of secondhand smoke," Barron said.
A poll in The Guardian newspaper found that most lawmakers surveyed support a free vote, a plan that is also backed by the anti-tobacco lobby. In a statement, ASH director Deborah Arnott pointed out that regional governments throughout Britain have already banned smoking or are planning to do so.
"Scotland already has a comprehensive smoke-free law, and it will also soon arrive in Wales and Northern Ireland. Only England would have to live with the unworkable halfway house now in this bill," Arnott said.
See Previous Story:
British Government Proposes Partial Smoking Ban (27 Oct. 2005)
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