The Khan review: making choice obsolete

by Tom Ryan, researcher


Last week the government published Dr Javed Khan’s independent review, ‘making smoking obsolete’ as part of its smokefree 2030 policy. The 15 recommendations of the paper are part of a long tradition of going after British smokers, and like the proposals of previous decades, seek to push us further towards a complete prohibition on smoking. If implemented, these policies are likely to put pressure on the pockets of the poorest in the UK.


Khan identifies a lot of work to be done in order to regulate smoking out of existence. Many people believe that the end of smoking has already arrived, or is soon to come, but this report disagrees. Six million people in the UK smoke, with 64,000 people per year dying of smoking related illnesses. The review puts the cost of smoking ‘to society’ at £17 billion, although it is not clear how much the new duties proposed would cost working people in the UK.


The history of tobacco regulation in the UK looks very familiar to anybody who has read Khan’s report. In 1962, a white paper was published which recommended restricted advertising of tobacco products, as well as increased taxation in order to discourage use. In the subsequent decade, warnings emerged on cigarette packages first as an idea then as a reality - as a voluntary addition by tobacco firms, and then as a mandatory addition by the government. Warnings on cigarette packets grew from one small health warning to four, and would eventually become the graphic depiction we see today.


In around 25 years, advertising tobacco products went from widespread to completely illegal. In 1975 the Code of Advertising Practice of cigarettes was taken out of industry control and moved to the jurisdiction of the Advertising Standards Authority. Over the following decade, Imperial Tobacco removed logos from racing cars, the Marlboro cowboy was put out to pasture, and an early day motion was tabled by Sir George Young calling for a ban on all tobacco advertising.  Eventually, in 1999, the Labour Government announced its commitment to ban tobacco advertising altogether. Many people will find this ending point a comfortable one, but it shows how ‘sensible’ regulation can be a trojan horse for outright bans. And we are likely seeing the same happening here with the Khan review.


Khan’s review suggests that the government is primed to seal the deal on another aspect of smoking prohibition: smoking indoors. Recommendation seven explicitly includes an end to smoking in 70 per cent of new social housing tenancies and developments. This will expand regulation from the public realm to the private sphere, and the next step may be smoking bans in private properties. In 2015 the government regulated against private smoking in the presence of children in a car, and now it seems that general prohibition is on the table.


It is likely from the emphasis on publicly owned properties that Khan’s reforms will fall harder on the poorest taxpayers. The third recommendation of the report is that tobacco duties should be raised substantially – by more than 30 per cent – which will be particularly punishing for working people, since rates of smoking are most stubborn among those on lower incomes. The review itself acknowledges that “the one factor that predicts smoking in England more precisely than any other is whether someone lives in social housing”. Moreover, young people are likely to suffer from these measures, as they make up a disproportionate number of smokers. This is a cruel burden to place on groups being hammered by the cost of living crisis, especially so shortly after a national insurance hike shackled graduates with a basic tax rate of nearly 50 per cent on additional pay.


“Making smoking obsolete” is now in the sights of politicians and activists. If the recommendations of this report are implemented, it’ll be illegal to smoke in the beer garden of a pub, and films that feature cigarette use will be censored for the health and safety of the audience. This is one step away from a complete ban on all smoking. Is prohibition the path we really want to take?

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