Picture the scene. You’re walking to the pub after a day of graft, music ringing in your headphones as thoughts of the day’s stress give way to childlike excitement for the first sip of continental lager. You arrive, order your chosen brew and assume an outside seat. Just as you’ve always done, you produce your favourite cigarette to accompany your pint and before you can light it, a nasal ‘excuse me’ is heard from a smug punter, who reminds you that this is now illegal. Welcome to misery Britain.
Surely such grimness could never come to pass, not in the land of ‘Hurricane’ Higgins and Oliver Reed? Well, they’re both dead, and the cultural landscape is now populated by fashion influencers and TikTokking teenagers. Our political theatre is no better and only this week, it was reported that over a dozen councillors representing 16 London authorities wrote a letter imploring policymakers to ban smoking from outdoor hospitality seating areas.
Pubs, aside from being integral to Britain’s social fabric, are a crucial economic asset. They support 885,000 jobs across the UK and £23.4bn of GVA. As we all remember, the hospitality industry took a battering during the pandemic and the total number of pubs in England and Wales dropped below 40,000 in 2022, a fall of more than 7000 compared to a decade ago. Add record inflation and high energy prices into the mix and things look even worse. Banning smokers from pub gardens will only serve to repel potential customers from an industry in urgent need of an economic boost.
The councillors’ absurd proposal comes in the wake of last year’s government-commissioned review into smoking, carried out by former Bernardo’s chief Javed Khan. The report’s conclusions were a prohibitionist’s fantasy and included painting all cigarettes green and mimicking New Zealand by raising the smoking age each year until enjoying a puff is restricted to supercentenarians. Given how successful prohibition has been in ridding the world of drugs, alcohol and prostitution, perhaps Khan is on to something with fags. Of course, that isn’t the case, and attempts to legislate vices out of existence have proved some of humanity’s greatest and most costly policy failures.
A more effective strategy to get people to quit smoking would be to educate them about the plethora of less harmful tobacco alternatives available. As Christopher Snowdon has written, increasing the availability of products such as e-cigarettes, snus and heated tobacco would go a long way to decreasing the smoking rate. This can be achieved through a number of means. Dispelling disinformation around vaping is paramount, as currently 40% of English smokers wrongly believe that nicotine causes cancer and a disconcertingly high number think that e-cigarettes are more dangerous than smoking. Further, reforming the EU Tobacco Products Directive wouldn’t go amiss, as article 20 currently exacts punitive restrictions on the advertising and mechanical composition of e-cigarettes.
According to the 2023 Nanny State Index (required reading for any freedom-minded citizen), however, the UK is doing pretty well when it comes to vaping regulation, having received a favourable score of 1.3 on the zealotry of its associated red tape. But no evidenced-based policy agenda can be allowed to last in misery Britain and reports of a plan to ban single-use vapes have emerged this week, almost as a chorus to the councillors’ letter. While I empathise with concerns that kids probably shouldn’t be sucking on fluorescently coloured vapes, the answer is not a blanket ban. All that would ensue from such a policy is a flurry of illegal e-cigarettes entering the black market and young people subsequently consuming products which are less regulated and potentially more harmful.
The corrosive impact that poor health has on our public finances and quality of life is undeniable, and discouraging smoking, a leading cause of avoidable death, is a laudable aim. This aim, however, should not come at the cost of sensible policymaking and if the government is serious about achieving a smoke-free future, then they need to stop infantilising and start educating about the alternatives.
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