The Spectator

A smoking ban is pointless and illiberal

Why is Britain poised to ban cigarette smoking, when the habit is already dying out anyway? Smoking is seen by the young as disgusting and outdated. A generation ago, 50 per cent of school pupils said they had smoked at some point. By the time David Cameron came to power, this was down to 25 per cent. It has since halved again, to 12 per cent – of whom just 1 per cent smoke regularly. Vaping among the young presents its own challenges, but smoking cigarettes (at £15 a packet) is in terminal decline. So naturally the state has decided to intervene.

Smoking is dying out among the young because they are choosing not to smoke, not because it is banned

Politicians of all parties united this week to usher in the Tobacco and Vapes Bill, which will create two categories of consumers. Those born before 2009 will be able to purchase whatever they please in shops. Those born later will be supervised consumers: banned from buying not just cigarettes but any tobacco products, including cigars and shisha. How will this be enforced? The task will obviously fall to shopkeepers, who will one day be breaking the law if they sell Silk Cut to a 35-year-old, thinking they looked 36. It’s patent nonsense, which is why the New Zealanders (whose idea it was originally and whom Rishi Sunak copied) abandoned it.

The most worrying aspect of this is that creating two tiers of consumers is a breach of the basic doctrine of equality before the law. Once this principle is created, what will follow? It won’t be long before the health lobby tries to extend the banned list of products to sugary food, perhaps introducing an age limit for buying Terry’s Chocolate Oranges and Frosties. The bill, as framed, will also ban vape flavours that ministers think are too tempting – rather reminiscent of the pandemic years, when they spent precious time debating whether a Scotch egg counted as a substantial meal.

It is reasonable that Sunak might want to secure himself some kind of legacy and that he’s understandably excited at finally finding a policy that has public support (something the Tories have struggled with for quite a while). But he has divided cabinet colleagues whom he needs to keep united. Some of his MPs said they came into politics to defend the principles of equality, individual choice and liberty. Kemi Badenoch, his Trade Secretary and most likely successor, was one who opposed him on the grounds of the burden on small businesses and the equality before the law principle.

There cannot be any adult left in Britain who is not aware that smoking causes several forms of cancer as well as damaging the heart and circulatory system. Its demise is an unalloyed benefit for public health. Yet the mission-creep had already started. We have seen the banning of snus (tobacco pouches held between the lips and gums), yet snus has helped Sweden, where it is legal, to lead the world in cutting cigarette use.

The most fundamental objection to the ban is that it shifts government health policy from its role of giving simple and honest and unbiased information to that of seeking to change our habits by force. Yes, hard drugs are banned of course (though, oddly, some of those most in favour of the smoking ban want to decriminalise marijuana), but there is a big difference between psychoactive drugs, which can turn people violent or alter their behaviour in some harmful way, and shisha, cigars and cigarettes.

In Tuesday’s debate, the shadow health secretary Wes Streeting was not inclined to engage in the slippery slope argument, insisting instead that the argument against a smoking ban was akin to the argument against ever banning anything. Yet the SNP has a list of ‘junk foods’ (even including porridge) whose promotion it wants to restrict on the grounds that they are deemed to pose a health risk. Once public health policy goes down this route, there is no obvious end.

This will, of course, be great news for those who sell things under the counter. Taxes on cigarettes are already so high that one in every ten smoked comes from the black market, usually smuggled in duty-free. So how effective does Sunak think his new age restraints will be? Every few years, the NHS tests the system by asking children from the age of 11 upwards if they encounter difficulty buying cigarettes. Its studies show that most do not: this in a country where the age limit for smoking is supposed to be 18. Smoking is dying out among the young because they are choosing not to smoke, not because they are banned from doing so.

The idea that the state should police our habits was reinforced during the Covid-19 pandemic, when we were subjected to endless fussy restrictions. But early on in the pandemic, the chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser were much more impressive when they addressed us directly, giving us the facts as they were then known, and appealing to our own sense of responsibility and judgment to behave in ways that would slow the spread. It worked, too.

In a democracy, this is a good general principle for public health. The best and most effective method is to provide accurate information and then leave people to make their own decisions. Sunak was one of the members of the government who were most sceptical of lockdown measures and coercion. The Prime Minister should remember his brave and reasoned stance then, and leave cigarette smoking to die its own death.

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