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« Notes from abroad | Main | BBC presenter defends freedom to make 'bad choices' »

The erosion of tolerance and the freedom to choose

Within the next hour I shall be on a flight to Seattle.

I leave you with my foreword to Forest's new report, written by Josie Appleton, '40 Years of Hurt: The hyper-regulation of smokers 1979-2019', published on Monday.

(To promote the report Josie also wrote an article for Spiked – First they came for the smokers.)

I began by explaining the inspiration for the title:

ADDRESSING guests at Forest’s 40th anniversary dinner in London in June, Mark Littlewood, director-general of the Institute of Economic Affairs, struck an appealingly optimistic note. “It may feel like 40 years of hurt, but that never stopped me dreaming. Freedom,” he said, “is coming home.”

I do hope he’s right. A few months ago, during an ‘In Conversation’ event at the IEA, I was asked what was the biggest change I had noticed in the 20 years I have been director of Forest. “When I started,” I replied, “there were voluntary agreements and codes of practice. Today there is far more legislation. Coercion has replaced common sense.”

Reading Josie Appleton’s report I am reminded how true that is. In 1999 (let alone 1979) policies on tobacco were often agreed without the need for legislation or heavy-handed regulation, and they were arguably more effective. As Josie notes, the sharpest fall in smoking rates in the UK took place between the mid Seventies and the early Nineties when there were relatively few laws concerning the sale, marketing, promotion or consumption of tobacco.

Smoking was increasingly prohibited in the workplace but that was a matter for individual employers in consultation with staff and the unions. No-smoking areas were becoming a feature of many pubs and restaurants, and some proprietors chose to ban smoking completely, but it was their decision not the government’s.

Politicians and stakeholders, including the tobacco industry, generally got together and adopted reasonable policies that most people could agree with. The outcome, by and large, were measures that took into account the interests of all parties, including consumers. Increasingly however power and influence has shifted to professional activists and unelected mandarins in the Department of Health and quangos such as Public Health England.

Voluntary codes have given way to laws banning all tobacco sponsorship and advertising. Policies that allowed for smoking and non-smoking areas in the workplace, including pubs and restaurants, were ruthlessly stubbed out. Even private members’ clubs were forced to obey the arbitrary new laws.

‘The pariah status of smoking does not reflect public mores,’ writes Josie. And she’s right. The tragedy is that many of the anti-smoking laws introduced in the new millenium do not reflect public opinion. The results of surveys and ‘public’ consultations have consistently been ignored or disregarded. The smoking ban was introduced despite surveys that showed that only 30 per cent of adults supported a comprehensive ban. (Even today opinion polls throughout the UK consistently find that a majority of adults are in favour of allowing separate smoking rooms in pubs and private members’ clubs.) Plain packaging of tobacco was also pushed through parliament despite the fact that a public consultation generated a huge majority (2:1) opposed to the policy.

The consequence of such measures has been a gradual erosion of tolerance with a small but vociferous group of anti-smoking activists dictating government policy. Having been forced to smoke outside despite the fact that modern air filtration systems were perfectly capable of reducing environmental tobacco smoke to a level acceptable to most people, smokers today find themselves under attack from zealots who want smoking prohibited outside as well. ‘Now,’ writes Josie, ‘our noses twitch at the slightest whiff of tobacco smoke.’

Launched in 1984, No Smoking Day went from being a well-meaning initiative that helped smokers who wanted to quit, to an event that positively encouraged an anti-smoking culture. But at least it was only one day. Today, thanks to the taxpayer-funded Stoptober campaign, smokers have to endure an entire month of state-sponsored nagging.

The increasingly brutal approach to smoking cessation is epitomised by Public Health England which is currently demanding that all NHS trusts ban smoking on hospital grounds, a policy that actively discriminates against patients who may be in rm or completely immobile. Taking advantage of people’s physical condition to take away one of their few pleasures when they are at their most vulnerable, mentally as well as physically, is truly despicable.

Meanwhile punitive taxation (between 80 and 90 per cent of the cost of tobacco goes to the government) has one main aim – to coerce people to stop smoking. Low earners who can’t or won’t quit are pushed further into poverty, leading to more hardship. Despite this, anti-smoking policies are often characterised as an act of charity. Action on Smoking and Heath, the anti-smoking pressure group that drives the anti-smoking agenda in the UK, likes to be described not as a political lobby group, which is more accurate, but as a ‘quit smoking charity’. I fail to see what’s charitable about whipping up hostility towards a significant minority of the population.

‘Smoking,’ writes Josie Appleton, ‘is the canary for civil liberties.’ Again, she’s right. If we don’t stand up for adults who enjoy smoking, what’s next? Armed with the tobacco template, are public health campaigners going to move from informing the public about nutrition and healthy eating and drinking to banning more and more products that are deemed ‘unhealthy’ while dictating the amount of sugar, alcohol or calories we are permitted to consume?

Any review of the last 40 years would have to conclude that the freedom to choose what we eat, drink and smoke has been eroded alarmingly to the extent that, in 2020, an entire category of tobacco – menthol cigarettes – will be prohibited. All is not lost, though. As the IEA’s Mark Littlewood commented, when addressing Forest’s 40th anniversary dinner:

“Fellow smokers and lovers of freedom, let’s not worry about the tactical battles we may have lost. Let’s make sure that in 2059, when we come together again to celebrate 80 years of Forest, that we are able to light up, drink up, and reflect that the battle for freedom has been won.” Amen to that.

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