As you may or may not have noticed, smoking is an issue fairly close to the hearts of some among The Third Estate’s bloggers. And as today brings news of proposals for even stricter restrictions on smoking in public places, you could be forgiven for expecting another angry denunciation of government policy on the issue. But, just this once, that’s not what you’re going to get. Now, admittedly as a (near-)non-smoker, I’m probably a bit less likely to view the right to smoke as a fundamental human freedom in any case, but take a close look at what the Department of Health is actually suggesting:
This next push offers a radical vision for a smokefree future. It sets out several key commitments:
- Stopping young people being recruited as smokers by cracking down on cheap illicit cigarettes. Immediate investment in extra overseas officers will stop 200 million cigarettes entering the UK every year.
- Every smoker will be able to get help from the NHS to suit them if they want to give up – new types of support will be available at times and in places that suit smokers.
- The Government will carefully consider the case for plain packaging.
- Stopping the sale of tobacco from vending machines – a significant source of tobacco for young people.
So, let’s consider these proposals one by one. A crackdown on cigarette smuggling? More tax money for the Treasury’s all-too-empty coffers as more cigarettes are bought legitimately? Sounds OK to me. Some smokers – well, OK, most smokers who are aware of the issue – are undeniably quite pissed off that taxes on tobacco bring in considerably more money than the NHS spends on treating smoking-related diseases, but I don’t see that they have much reason to complain, particularly if they argue against restrictions on smoking on the grounds of personal liberty (as is commonplace on this blog). No one’s coercing smokers into buying tobacco products, so raising taxes on them isn’t authoritarian. Sure, most smokers are to some extent addicted (so perhaps they can’t exactly be said to be choosing to buy tobacco), but if they want to spend less money then they have the option of free smoking cessation help from the NHS – help which, according to the second bullet point above, is becoming better-funded and more widely available under the new proposals. There’s no compulsion involved.
Banning branded packaging – if indeed the government decides to do this – doesn’t seem much of an affront to liberty either. I fail to see how distinctive designs on different brands of tobacco products enhance the freedoms of those who are buying those products and as such likewise fail to see how banning said designs restricts their freedom. It certainly restricts the freedoms of the tobacco companies to influence consumers through marketing and branding, but surprisingly enough I don’t really give a shit about that.
Stopping the sale of tobacco from vending machines is, again, not something I can really bring myself to care about. Unless you think the UK’s ban on alcohol in vending machines is a gross violation of our fundamental liberties (or that there’s some fundamental difference in how alcohol and tobacco should be treated as controlled substances), I really don’t see that there’s a great deal to make a fuss about.
As for the final point, there seems little reason why a campaign to dissuade people from exposing children to secondhand smoke should be seen as controversial, and a prohibition on smoking in the entrances to buildings is barely an extension of the previous smoking ban. The principle – that non-smokers shouldn’t be exposed to high levels of secondhand smoke – is exactly the same. Walking through a large group of smokers clustered round a doorway is pretty comparable to walking past a group of smokers indoors, and obviously unavoidable if you want to go into the building outside which said smokers are standing. Whether the previous smoking ban was right or wrong is a question on which I’m agnostic, but this is hardly a tougher restriction.
In short, smokers’ rights advocates might do well to rein in their outrage. Whether the government is right to care so much about the harms of smoking is certainly debatable, but if it is trivial then attacking these proposals as part of a war on personal liberty seems a little lacking in perspective.