For your own good?

By Benjamin Elks, operations manager


Tobacco has long been the target of many nanny-state policies, intent on restricting adults enjoying a perfectly legal activity. From the menthol ban, to pack size restrictions, to the ever increasing taxes being levied, smokers are being aggressively restricted by those who think they know what’s best.


The justification for these moves has always been that smoking kills. To paraphrase, it’s a bad habit that you should stop. It’s a message you can’t get away from, given it’s printed on every pack and pouch. Smokers know the risk they are taking. They weigh up their options and they make their choice. 


That being said, taxes on tobacco are incredibly regressive, disproportionately punishing those on lower incomes. With government plans to bring in a record hike to tobacco taxes this year, I made the point to The Sun that: “Smokers already pay vast sums to the Treasury. Tobacco taxes are high enough, without yet another damaging increase. The government should freeze tobacco duty.”


But if increasing the tax on a box of smokes is meant to encourage smokers to kick the habit, you would think that ministers would be embracing the safer, less harmful alternatives.


Sadly, it appears you’d be wrong. 


It emerged this week that health officials are looking at ways to crackdown on vaping, including levying new taxes and restricting flavours. This is exactly the same playbook they use for disincentivising smoking. The rationale cited for this being that the government doesn't want to see children taking up the habit. Selling vapes to children is of course already illegal, and there are also a multitude of restrictions relating to advertising and marketing. Better enforcement of the current rules would go a long way towards stopping children taking up vaping. 


The NHS says: “Nicotine vaping is substantially less harmful than smoking. It's also one of the most effective tools for quitting smoking.” Why then would you want to make vapes more expensive for people trying to quit smoking? 


Perhaps it’s really an attempt to replace lost revenue from people who give up cigarettes. 


The trouble with this is it fundamentally undermines the reason for taxing tobacco so heavily in the first place. If tobacco levies are there to push people to quit smoking, then surely driving up the price and restricting the choice of vapes will be completely counterproductive. The same goes for heated tobacco, and other forms of less harmful smoking alternatives. The last thing people trying to improve their health via these reduced harm products need is to be paying more for the things that will help them. If anything, it may drive people in need of a nicotine fix towards even less safe black market alternatives. 


The government needs to decide whether its tax regime on nicotine products is there to encourage people to quit or to simply raise revenue. Ministers must clear the air, so to speak, and explain exactly what their tobacco taxes are trying to achieve, before making life even more difficult for those trying to quit.

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