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A Fig Leaf for Outright Prohibition

Christopher Snowdon / KJM Today Opinion

June 9, 2022

Writing for CapX, Christopher Snowden reports a rumour that raising the smoking age (or, more accurately, the age at which tobacco can be bought – there is no limit on when you can start smoking) will be one of the recommendations of the ‘Independent Review into Tobacco Control’ when it is published today (June 9).

The review has been carried out by Javed Khan, a former CEO of the charity Barnado’s. The idea behind it is to come up with yet more anti-smoking regulations because there are apparently not already enough. It is not clear why the Government can’t come up with policies itself, nor why Mr Khan, who has no particular expertise in this area, has been put in charge of it.

An independent audit of tobacco control would be more appropriate. Anti-smoking campaigners pop up every few years with their stern faces to tell us that they have got a new evidence-based policy which the Government must act upon. The Government then dithers until the pressure builds enough for it to capitulate, the policy is introduced and we never hear about it again. The last one was plain packaging, which was portrayed as something of a panacea at the time (one of its more excitable advocates described it as a vaccine for lung cancer), but when the dust settled it turned out to have no effect on cigarette sales. Randomised controlled trials have since shown that it was never likely to work.

Independent reviews are supposed to ‘take the politics out’ of issues that are inherently political. They are supposed to generate ‘blue sky thinking’ and ‘thinking outside of the box’. In practice, they usually involve someone who doesn’t know a great deal about a subject being surrounded by activists, and who ends up parroting the activists’ demands. We saw this with Henry Dimbleby’s 'National Food Strategy' which was so full of conventional thinking that the Government had already announced some its policies by the time it was published.

With smoking, the leading activists in Britain are Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), a state-funded pressure group that has no membership but has a lot of friends in the Department of Health. In recent years, its policy priorities have been raising the smoking age to 21 and introducing a tobacco industry levy. I don’t wish to prejudge Mr Khan’s review – it may be filled with original and independent thinking for all I know – but according to the Guardian its main policy recommendations will be raising the smoking age to 21 and introducing a tobacco industry levy. Fancy that.

The levy would just be another tax on smokers. No matter how much you dress it up as a tax on industry, it would – as HMRC said in 2014 – ‘be entirely equivalent to an increase in the specific tax that currently exists on tobacco products’. The Treasury rejected it on this basis. You can’t put a windfall tax on companies that are not based in the UK and since there is already a regressive tobacco duty escalator which guarantees a 2% rise plus inflation, there is no point adding another stealth tax.

Raising the age at which tobacco can be purchased is more interesting. It is unlikely to generate much pushback from people over the age of 20, who will never be affected, and even people aged between 18 and 20 are unlikely to care since they will probably be aged 21 or over by the time the law comes into effect. The political debate will revolve around the more profound question of when does a child become an adult?

One point that will be made with tedious regularity is that many politicians want to lower the voting age to 16. Until 1970, you had to be 21 to vote but could buy tobacco at the age of 16. Are we heading for a situation in which these legal statuses are reversed?

Another common talking point will be the idea that you can ‘fight and die for your country’ at the age of 16. Actually, you can’t, but you can join the army at the age of 16 and you can certainly fight and die in it when you are 18.

These points are made so often because they are obvious and rather powerful. If people are sensible enough to take the risk of going to war and responsible enough to elect their leaders, surely they have the wherewithal to weigh up the risks and benefits of smoking?

In practice, of course, moral questions about the age at which people reach maturity are irrelevant to the anti-smoking lobby. They are now more or less openly prohibitionist and talk freely about the ‘endgame’ in which the sale of cigarettes is ‘phased out’. Young adults are just the start. Once 20 year olds are deemed incapable of deciding whether they want to have a cigarette or not, the question will naturally turn to what the difference is between a 20 year old and a 25 year old, or indeed an adult of any age.

The real question is whether we are happy to live in a society in which appropriately informed adults are free to buy and consume highly regulated tobacco products. A significant minority favour outright prohibition and they are entitled to their view, but if that is the goal, we should have that debate openly and put and end to the disingenuous salami-slicing tactics.

© Christopher Snowden / CapX

Image - Getty via CapX

Heading For Yet More State Control

Christopher Snowden's article above poses an interesting question that goes some way above and beyond smoking.

There are probably few today who would argue in favour of smoking, including and perhaps significantly, smokers themselves. But failing to mount an effective counter to the anti-smoking lobby is also indicative of something else; a failure to understand that where one vociferous movement leads and succeeds, once done, something else becomes a target. And then something else and another something ad infinitum until complete and total control is achieved.

You may well disagree but let us look at the form book a little more.

Almost nobody would disagree that tobacco smoke is intrusive, dirty and smelly. To a non-smoker it is extraordinarily upsetting. So it is not unreasonable to say that a non-smoker has the right to go about their daily life without having to dodge a noxious cloud of the stuff. Equally however, it is also the right a somebody to decide for themselves whether or not to smoke. The key is a little consideration - on both sides. That is why it is entirely right that 'no-smoking' and 'smoking' sections should exist everywhere. That indeed is where we once were and it was left to the individual to choose.

Since those days however, the balance has been lost. Now, the right of choice has been forcibly removed. Not only that but the level of tax carried by tobacco products is utterly unfair to the point of being abusive.

The anti-smoker is of course delighted. With cigarettes almost banned from use everywhere, this particular fight is almost over. Yet as Christopher Snowden points out, it isn't. Not until smoking has been completely banned will some be satisfied. And when they are, what happens then? One only has to look to find out.

Since the upsurge in success against smoking took off, drinking alcohol has been a target. Next came the car. And there is more, including what food we eat - just have a look for the things we once had the right to decide for ourselves about, things we no longer have a choice over. Don't take our word for it...look for yourself.

And put the increasing level of state control alongside the events of the past two years. If there was ever a clear indication of where one thing can lead to another, it is the madness surrounding COVID-19 and the drastic removal of freedom that came with it.

That is the key - freedom. Freedom to decide for ourselves. Not to be dictated to. Either by the state, its agents or by anybody else. Perhaps Christopher Snowden should have asked more simply:

The real question is whether we are happy to live in a society in which appropriately informed adults are free.

© KJM Today, 2022.

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