By Benjamin Elks, operations manager
When the prime minister stood up at the Conservative Party Conference, he promised to set out his vision of change for the country.
Perhaps the most radical proposal from Sunak was a plan to create a “smoke free generation” with the age for purchasing tobacco increasing by one year every year, as is happening in New Zealand.
At first glance, it’s hard to imagine anyone would object to this. We know smoking is bad for your health. “Smoking Kills” and various other health warnings are printed across every pack and pouch. Combined with Rishi’s claim that smoking costs £17 billion a year in England, why wouldn’t we want to stub out smoking for good and save future generations from addiction and illness, and the country a pretty penny to boot?
As is so often the case when politicians quote big numbers, it’s worth looking at how they reached them and just how relevant they are to the debate.
The £17 billion figure appears to come from Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), a charity that has been at the forefront of the anti-smoking lobby for over 50 years. What the prime minister did not say was that this is not a cost borne by taxpayers. Indeed, £14 billion of this “cost” relates to “lost productivity” as opposed to expenditure by the exchequer.
Smokers pay £10 billion a year in tobacco taxes to the treasury, and this is expected to hit £10.4 billion in 2023/24. This amounts to 1 per cent of receipts and 0.4 per cent of national income.
This is where every other taxpayer comes in. With seemingly little desire to cut back on spending within government, and a deficit expected to be over £131 billion in 2023/24, you have to wonder where the lost revenue will come from when cigarettes are no longer on sale and tobacco duties no longer raise money for the treasury’s coffers.
In all likelihood, this money will simply be replaced by the government, likely through stealth rises, such as frozen tax thresholds, or with new taxes on other nicotine products such as vapes.
Whilst vapes may seem like the obvious target for new taxes, they are also one of the best aids for stopping smoking - even to the extent that the NHS provides information on how vaping can help people kick the habit and describes them as “substantially less harmful than smoking.” We’ve looked before at why taxing vapes would be counterproductive. And it fundamentally undermines the government’s argument for taxing tobacco in the first place. If tobacco taxes are there to encourage smokers to quit, taxing vapes simply renders making the switch to a less harmful alternative less appealing.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by these latest moves to punish what has been a perfectly legal activity since the 16th century. For many years now, smokers have been faced with greater and greater regulation and ostracisation. From the indoor smoking ban to plain packs, the direction of travel has been one way.
But these moves were universally applicable and the requirements for enforcement were clear and relatively easily managed by those responsible for them. The same cannot be said for these latest proposals.
Passing this ban will create a situation where a 35 year old is able to purchase cigarettes but a 34 year old attempting to do so will be breaking the law if they try. No longer will retailers be able to simply judge people by how old they appear and only require proof from those on the borderline of legality. It is easy to envision political debate taking note of this impracticality before moving swiftly on to the simpler, total prohibition of tobacco products regardless of age.
At every turn in the story of tobacco regulation, proponents have maintained that ‘just this one more step’ will be enough whilst opponents have decried the ‘thin of the wedge’. It is perhaps obvious now which side was being honest.
Economic and practical arguments aside, Rishi’s ban would call into question the UK’s claim to be a liberal democracy where people have the right to make decisions for themselves, including whether to engage in an activity that may harm them in the long term.
We will no longer be saying that certain products should not be sold to children. We will be saying that people of a certain age will never be old enough to make such simple decisions for themselves. The 40 year old of the future will be a 14 year old forever under Sunak’s plan.
The effective prohibition of tobacco that the prime minister longs for represents an attack on liberty that even the darkest of dystopian and science fiction writers didn’t dream up. After all, even Orwell’s Winston Smith in 1984 still received his cigarette ration! In Asimov’s Foundation series, ‘atomic ashtrays’ are commonplace.
Parliamentarians have a choice; infatalise Brits and demand taxpayers pick up the tab, or let smoking rates continue on their natural decline whilst respecting adults' right to make decisions for themselves. The decision they make will have ramifications far beyond your right to choose…