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Spotted at a health related press launch in Westminster recently was Sir George Young, a member of parliament who in 1981 suffered an “acute myocalifano infarction”. As experienced tobacco control advocates will know, this sudden cutting-off of political power often afflicts good health ministers who take a strong line on tobacco. It is named after an early victim, US health secretary Joe Califano, who was sacked amid a fury of tobacco industry outrage after making clear to a delighted world conference on tobacco and health in 1979 that he meant business on tobacco control.
Sir George’s own event struck soon after he had secured permission from his cabinet level boss to initiate legislation if the tobacco companies, with which he had been forced into fruitless “voluntary agreement” negotiations, did not agree significant reductions on promotion. The night he was moved to a much less important post in the department of the environment, when asked what his new responsibilities were, a disgruntled Sir George replied, “I seem to be in charge of the government car pool”. Nowadays in opposition, but still manifestly concerned about preventive health measures, Sir George surveyed the changes over the near quarter century since he left the health department.
The UK, while slow on taking action on smoking in public places, has seen a rate of decline of lung cancer mortality, that crude but most direct of markers, second only to Finland. But Sir George recalled another crude marker seen along the way, 10 years ago, when he attended the 80th birthday party of his former constituent Dr Keith Ball, for many years chairman of Action on Smoking and Health.
A magnificent birthday cake was brought in, and Dr Ball prepared himself to attempt the heroic feat of blowing out all the candles. But in a large room full of friends and former colleagues, not a single guest had a match or lighter. Luckily, said Sir George, someone had the presence of mind to run to a nearby hospital ward to beg one from a porter or nurse, though he hopes that not even they will be able to produce one at Dr Ball’s 90th, later this year.