No human is perfect. Each of us has habits, attributes and ways of behaving that provide us with limited, if any, benefit. Rather, our indulgences, potentially as an escape from tricky lives, could be an immense detriment to personal, social, professional or health development. Despite my immense faith in the capacity of humankind to use reason for advancing social progress, everyone has their vices.
The role of government in trying to combat these vices has long been up for debate. If an individual is just harming themselves, should the state really step in? Yet the argument that vices – gambling, smoking, excessive drinking – harm those around us is a strong one. As such, governments have engaged in the politics of behaviour, regulating the actions of humans as part of the supposed greater good.
Smoking has now formed a part of that agenda, with the government still seeking to be a smoke free nation by 2030. An independent review into tobacco control led by Dr Javed Khan OBE offers numerous proposals including, most controversially, raising the sale of tobacco by one year ever year until nobody can buy a tobacco product.
This mirrors proposals in New Zealand to ban anyone born after 2008 from ever buying tobacco. As such, it is the politics of stealth, seeking to clamp down on negative human indulgences.
You may think, on the surface, I would support such a move. I loathe smoking: both for its smell and immense health impacts. Nearly 80,000 people die a year from smoking, according to BUPA, with smoking reducing one’s life expectancy by ten years and, from the age of 40, every additional year of smoking reduces it by another three months. The correlation between smoking and forms of cancer and heart disease are indisputable.
I don’t support such a ban. Firstly, this forgets the existing success story of smoking reduction without fierce clampdowns. The NHS found the percentage of adult smokers fell from 27% in 1993 to 16% in 2019, with those who do smoke reducing their annual daily cigarette intake from 15 cigarettes a day to 10 in that time period.
Though I am immensely critical of New Labour and Tony Blair, I believe the smoking ban, which came into force in July 2007 and banned smoking in enclosed spaces, is one of the best pieces of public health legislation for saving countless lives. Combined with advertising regulation, smoking has voluntarily gone down.
Excessive public health measures like the independent report are all united by assuming the worst of humans. Viewing citizens in a patronising, paternalistic manner, governments fear humans have neither the agency nor awareness over what they are consuming.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, everyone knows about the health costs of smoking. That they are choosing to continue smoking would suggest it is a form of pleasure. Though, like bungee-jumping, it’s one I cannot get my head around at all, I believe denying it would be a form of immense state intrusion.
Indeed, where legal poisons have been made illegal, it does not practically work. Prohibition of the production, importation, manufacturing, and sale of alcohol existed in the USA from 1920 to 1933, with bootlegging and illegal sales of alcohol making the law impossible.
Once a substance has been legalised, it is impossible to then criminalise it. That is why I am, at best, deeply sceptical about calls to decriminalise cannabis and other substances, given the immense health costs individuals are well aware of.
A far better argument would be using the powers of reason, argument, and debate. Given those opposed to smoking like myself have the health and social consequences of smoking in our favour, deploying those arguments through convincing others, rather than an abrupt form of coercion, would surely be far better use of time.
Statistics show the number of smokers in the UK continues to plummet, meaning reason is surely far better. With 28% of men aged between 25-34 smoking compared to 9% aged 65 to 74, it would suggest, as people age, the amount by which they prioritise their health over pleasure is already changing.
Banning something is often only ever a sticking plaster to a far wider structural problem. It’s far easier to prevent something than explore the wider structural causes for why people smoke. Sure, for many, it might just be a long-term form of pleasure they have no desire to stop. Or it could be a form of escape from an insecure life, perhaps linked to changing employment patterns and the cost-of-living.
With the average smoker in the northeast spending over 10% of their income on tobacco, compared to just over 6% in the southeast, this demonstrates the regional disparities on cost and health.
Given the government’s report found, ‘during the COVID pandemic, the proportion of young adults aged 18 to 24 that smoke rose from 1 in 4 to 1 in 3’, it was clear that continued isolation worsened personal health, under the guise of protecting public health. As the government has proven, tackling how we revive our economy and strengthen productivity is a challenge that has crippled government after government.
Rather, tobacco duties (often pejoratively labelled sin taxes by opponents) raised £8.8 billion for the government in 2017/18, contributing to 1.7% of all taxes in the UK. To put it bluntly, this is revenue smokers are contributing towards government that, due to their shorter life expectancy, they might not be taking in a reliance on social care or the NHS.
A balance needs to be struck. The report is right to allocate £125 million for smoke free policies and £70 million a year for services helping people to stop smoking, though where the money will come from is unclear.
Fundamentally, a recognition of personal choice and agency must occur. Individuals who smoke are well aware of their vice, spending large amounts of money on, bluntly, small cancer cylinders that will dramatically shorten their life.
Yes, governments and individuals should encourage people to switch away and seek alternatives like vaping (or preferably not smoking at all). But to seek to ban smoking altogether is a step too far and acts as an unpractical sticking plaster which avoids examining the structural reasons for why smoking, for so many, remains such a desire.