Is it time to ban cigarettes and cigars once and for all? Or is this an outrageous loss of freedom of choice?
In 2022 the Government published the independent Khan review: Making Smoking Obsolete, which recommends making the UK ‘smokefree’ by 2030. This was based on the report published by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Smoking and Health the year before, setting out the measures needed to achieve this.
It seems highly likely that this objective is going to be pushed through. Is it a good idea?
Sam – No, it’s a restriction on our freedom of choice
I’m going to kick off by telling you that I’m an ex-smoker. And I am forever thankful that I gave up the gaspers. They’re bad for your health, expensive, revolting, carcinogenic, and discarded butts take around 14 years to degrade. None of this is good. Smoking is a ghastly thing to do, and honestly, I’d be thrilled if everyone just gave up.
But here’s the big but for me – or butt. I’m a big believer in freedom of choice. Freedom of speech, the right to be an a*sehole on Twitter, the right to paint your house pink – I might not like it, but I am very afraid that once we start letting the Government (or other bodies) decide stuff for us, it’s the thin end of the wedge.
I don’t want to start getting all Russell Brand on you, but if you want to see the UK civil liberties already lost under cover of the pandemic, have a look at this. See also the ‘Snooper’s Charter’, snuck in during 2016 when we were all distracted by Brexit. This gives the government the most intrusive mass surveillance regime of any democratic country on the planet, and the security services powers to spy on everyone, whether they’re suspected of criminal activity or not.
We also have increased stop and search powers by the police, the introduction of anti-terrorism measures that have been criticized for targeting Muslim communities, and the restriction of protests under the Public Order Act.
…once we start letting the Government decide stuff for us, it’s the thin end of the wedge
None of this sits comfortably with me – and neither does an arbitrary movement like making smoking obsolete. No referendum on this, I notice. Have we just dispensed with these now, because the government has decided the British people will just suck up whatever they give them – as long as it’s not a Marlboro? If you want to continue to roll up, rather than roll over, it’s time to say no.
I was all for banning smoking in public places. Nice not to come home stinking of fags, and croaky-throated from passive smoking all night. But if people want to smoke in their own spaces, that’s their choice. Smokers and the groups who advocate on their behalf argue that their habit is a civil right, even if it kills the smoker. In a report published in 2019, the smokers’ group Forest argued that “smokers are the canaries for civil liberties”. I kinda agree.
The loss of your freedom aside, making smoking ‘obsolete’ is a completely ridiculous objective. Cigarettes are made and sold in other countries – they will make their way here. A black market is inevitable. Did we learn nothing from Prohibition?
When the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified in 1920, it became illegal to manufacture, transport, or sell alcohol within the United States. However, the demand for alcohol did not disappear. As a result, a vast and highly profitable underground market for alcohol emerged.
The black market was run by organized crime syndicates, who smuggled alcohol from overseas, distilled it illegally, or sold alcohol that had been stolen from legal distributors. The profits from the black market were massive, and criminal gangs became rich and powerful.
Would a cigarettes black market be as bad? Who knows. Why would you even want to find out?
Prohibition also led to an increase in violence, corruption, and organised crime. Gangsters like Al Capone and Bugs Moran became household names as they fought for control of the lucrative black-market trade. Law enforcement officials who tried to enforce Prohibition were often bribed, threatened, or even killed.
The failure of Prohibition eventually led to the repeal of the 18th Amendment in 1933, just seven years later. Would a cigarettes black market be as bad? Who knows. Why would you even want to find out?
The concept of making fags obsolete but allowing vapes to carry on also makes my spidey sense tingle. A packet of gaspers is around £15 (yes really!). 16.5 per cent of the retail price goes to HMRC – that’s just under £2.50 in duty. But then they skim another £5.89 PER PACK OF 20 off on top of this, meaning your packet of cigs earns the gov a tidy £8.39 in revenue.
Finally, there has been almost no research carried out into the long-term effects of vaping, because it’s so new. Cancer Research UK cautiously identifies that vaping is less harmful than cigarettes, but is very clear that, “We don’t know yet what effects they might have in the long term.” So offering this up as a kind of way out also feels shifty. How do we know what vaping will do to us in 50 years’ time?
Smoking is grim, agreed. Smoking is bad for you, agreed. So why not improve the offering? Focus on making cigarettes less harmful to health. There are already brands such as American Spirit which are additive-free, pesticide-free, sourced from local farmers, and 100% fair trade. If people are going to smoke – and they’re going to – how about forcing the tobacco companies to do a better job, instead of creating a dangerous and subversive black market? And stop chipping away at our civil liberties.
Georgia – Yes, but let’s ban the lot!
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not the jerk who coughs melodramatically if anyone lights up in my presence. Some of the coolest photos involve a cigarette – Audrey Hepburn, James Dean, Marlon Brando, Sophia Loren… Hell, somewhere out there lurks a photo of me aged 20 with a ciggie hanging out of my mouth and a drink in each hand. I hope it never ends up on Facebook.
But if smoking becomes obsolete through means fair or foul, I won’t shed a tear. For purely selfish reasons, I don’t want my nicotine-loving friends to die young from smoking-related illnesses. Beyond wanting mates to live longer, the estimated cost of smoking to the NHS varies depending on the study and methodology, but it’s big. The 2015 figure of £2.6 billion per year indicates that one bad habit is a significant drain on an annual budget of around £120 billion.
Just as campaigns to improve road safety, reduce alcohol consumption, make workplaces safer and even reduce the £1.53 billion that sports injuries cost the NHS each year, strategies to stop people taking up smoking – or help smokers quit – should be welcomed. Public health campaigns, taxing cigarettes with ferocity, plain packaging, grim photos of diseased organs, increasing the legal age for buying cigarettes, limiting the places where smoking is allowed – it all helps.
I don’t want my nicotine-loving friends to die young from smoking-related illnesses.
Of course, the latest government plan to make smoking obsolete in England by 2030 is not perfect. I’m sceptical about promoting vaping to help people quit tobacco. It is hard to find solid data on whether vaping teenagers become cigarette-smoking adults, but the early research isn’t great news for your health. While vapers don’t inhale as many dangerous chemicals as cigarette smokers, e-cigs still contain nicotine – the stuff that gets you hooked – and we don’t yet know the long-term effects. It all feels a bit like replacing a terrible addiction with a slightly less terrible addiction.
Remember when smoking was banned in pubs and restaurants? It was never going to stop people ducking out for a cheeky fag, but the health benefits for customers and staff are immense – and it ended the era of reeking like an ashtray after a night out. Steve Martin’s reaction to people in restaurants asking if he minded if they smoked was, “No. Do you mind if I fart? That’s one of my habits!”, which sums up how grotty it is.
I’d love to see the day when young people ask why anyone ever smoked. These days, even perennial puffers are usually stunned at retro practices like smoking in cars with kids. If cigarettes were invented this week, the reaction would probably be, “So, you roll up dried leaves and chemicals in paper, set fire to it, put it in your mouth and suck? That’s weird.” Honestly, it’s a weirdness we can all do without.
Read: The Khan Review Summary