Imagine having emphysema. For those who don’t know what that entails, emphysema is when the lining of your lungs is destroyed, meaning that it gradually becomes harder and harder to take in the oxygen your body needs. To start with, you notice that you get out of breath just a bit faster than you used to. Then, over time, it gets worse. And worse. After a while you find yourself fighting for breath even while sitting still. And then, after a few years – for most of which you’ll be constantly hooked up to oxygen tanks, barely able to speak, move or even feed yourself – you’ll most likely die, either from a simple lack of air or from heart failure as the low oxygen levels in your blood cause your veins and arteries to constrict and your blood pressure to skyrocket. There is no cure. Oh, and if you smoke regularly for many years, the odds of this happening to you get a lot shorter (12 to 13 times shorter, in fact – although technically that’s for COPD rather than just emphysema).
None of this is really news – most people who smoke are aware that their habit is likely to have some nasty health consequences as they get older – and plenty of them would probably argue that the reason they smoke is that the pleasure they get from doing so outweighs the negative health effects. But this ignores the rather glaring issue that tobacco is an addictive substance, so the enjoyment of smoking for most people lies in large part in the relief from your addictive craving (though I’m not denying that smoking is enjoyable in itself as well). And it’s for that very simple reason that I support the announcement today that displaying tobacco in shops is to be banned.
The libertarian argument often used in cases like this – that people should be free to do things which put their own health at risk if they want to – is a compelling one, especially if those activities bring in more to the Treasury than is spent by the government tackling any associated health issues, as is commonly claimed to be the case with smoking. But autonomy shouldn’t be the only consideration when you’re thinking about addictive behaviour, for the fairly obvious reason that people who are acting under the influence of an addiction aren’t acting completely autonomously, which probably goes a long way in explaining why people still smoke despite the fairly high likelihood of severe health problems in the future. If you’re addicted to tobacco and want to quit (as the government claims one in three smokers are) then not seeing cigarettes displayed every time you go to the shop could well make it that bit easier. It’s easy to mock the idea that displays in shops affect your retail habits, but you know what? The reason that shops put up displays – and have been doing so for decades, if not centuries – is because they make you more likely to buy things. Of course they’re not the only thing determining what you buy (and the government’s claim that they’re the main reason teenagers start smoking does admittedly seem pretty implausible) but it’s ridiculous to claim they have no effect at all. And when those things are products you’re addicted to, that’s doubly true.
In any case, getting rid of shop window displays doesn’t do anything to restrict the sale of tobacco, just the advertisement of it. This ban does next to nothing to limit the freedom of smokers to buy and consume what they want, and there’s a good chance it will help the large numbers of people struggling to overcome their addictions. I really don’t see a problem with it.