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Britain's smoking ban is the government's worst and most pointless intervention in a situation | Simon Jenkins

Britain's smoking ban is the government's worst and most pointless intervention in a situation |  Simon Jenkins


There's nothing wrong with Liz Truss and Boris Johnson opposing the government's proposed new smoking ban. Smoking is unpleasant, but this week's parliamentary debate could have replaced the word nicotine with cannabis, alcohol, ultra-processed foods, BASE jumping or children's mobile phones. Everyone has risks. But in each case, proponents of restrictions rely on the same arguments. If something is a burden to the country, it should be banned. Personal freedom may be interrupted.

Rishi Sunak's smoking ban had the same smudged fingerprints as the Rwanda bill. It hinted at a late-night Downing Street cabal desperate for something catchy to put into the election campaign. Despite appearances, it does not prohibit anyone from smoking. The bill would ban stores from selling cigarettes to a growing age group, currently under 18, with the legal deadline increasing by one year each year. This means that people born after 2009 will never be able to legally buy cigarettes in the UK. The charges target numerous adult shoppers and store owners who are accused of falsifying identification documents to purport to be proxy shoppers. The smugglers will be cheering you on.

So far, UK smoking control efforts based on nudge principles have been surprisingly effective. This was achieved by working with demand rather than supply, as many economists advise. Tobacco use has declined over the past half century from about 45% of the population in 1974 to about 12% today and continues to decline. The solution was to stop smoking indoors, in public enclosed spaces and around children. Advertising was banned, vending machines were abolished and children were not allowed to buy cigarettes. The introduction of e-cigarettes, although controversial when it comes to young people using them, is understood to have helped accelerate the decline in smoking rates, according to drugs policy charity Transform. That vaping can reduce smoking is supported by data from Australia. In Australia, vapes were effectively banned in 2021, and as a result there hasn't actually been a decrease in smoking, there's been a slight increase.

Despite this, more than six million Britons still smoke, and their burden on the NHS has only been eased by paying $10 billion in tobacco tax and dying at a younger age, on average. Although smoking has long provided comfort to many people, not everyone becomes a nicotine addict. There must be public interest in curbing smoking. In our long study of this debate, Transform has taken a firm stance against simply extending what has worked. In 2007, the UK raised the age limit from 16 to 18, which reduced smoking rates in that age group by about 30%, a remarkable achievement. In the United States, raising the age to 21 in 2019 led to an even greater decline of 39%. A similar increase to 21 is certainly something the UK government should now do. Unlike Sunak's staggered ban, which could take five years to come into effect, the changes could be introduced all at once. The only country to propose banning his ID card was New Zealand. Due to unpopularity and a change in government, the building was abandoned.

We also see the state's heavy hand on Britain's failed drugs policy. The global war on drugs has been a complete disaster, built on the theory that demand will end when supply stops. The only regime that has proven remotely effective in curbing supplies is the Taliban in Afghanistan, and that may not last. Politicians everywhere preferred to let the gangsters win, crime soar, prisons get locked up and their children ruined, rather than show the guts to decriminalize, regulate and control the highly profitable and dynamic drug industry.

Governments across Europe, most recently in Germany, are testing ways to deal with recreational drugs and other types of drugs. They are experimenting with licensing, taxation, product regulation, promotion and public education. Some approaches work, some don't. The UK government has adopted a workable policy on youth tobacco smoking. The record on nicotine regulation is widely considered a success, just as the record on other drugs is a fiasco. As Transform points out, tobacco control is one of the key aspects of the UK's drugs policy, which is not surprisingly poor by global standards. This appears to be because smoking was treated as a public health issue led by health agencies rather than an enforcement issue led by the Home Office. Sunak's smoking ban has the same flaws as the cannabis ban. Complex government is always bad government.

Tobacco control provides an interesting testing ground for drug markets that are currently being rapidly liberalized across Europe. Realistic and fair regulation will be difficult, but it must be done if we are to prevent millions of people from dying prematurely. The misuse of opioids is now approaching epidemic status across the United States.

In every way, the country is inviting itself to examine more deeply the lives and ethics of its citizens that are constantly being challenged by authoritarian governments. It seeks to relieve us of responsibility for personal decisions and deny us freedom of choice. It dictates what food we eat and what drinks we drink, what rights we have to criticize, and how we discipline and indulge our children. The UK does not require special devices such as tobacco passports. Tobacco is a threat, but it is disappearing soon. Now other addictions will also come to our attention.




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