30 November 2023

New Zealand has given in to cravings, but Britain shouldn’t quit on the smoking ban

By Lord Bethell

It’s tough giving up smoking, as those strapping, sanctimonious Kiwis who invented the ‘New-Zealand-style cigarette ban’ just showed the world with a spectacular ‘New-Zealand-style loss of willpower’.

Full of good intentions, they gave in to the cravings the moment those naughty libertarians suggested cigarette levies could pay for tax cuts, like workmates offering a quick fag outside on a Friday night drinking session. It took me ten years to give up smoking, so I know that pleasure only too well – and the waves of self-loathing, guilt and remorse that follow.

This leaves Rishi’s government as the global torch-bearer of what’s become the ‘UK-style smoking ban’. It’s a great opportunity for post-Brexit, post-Elgin, post-Kwasi international leadership and a chance for the Prime Minister to secure some legacy. After that big cheer in Conservative Conference Hall, public health never felt so sexy and there is no sign of wobbling from Team Rishi. Legislation is expected in February and should fly through parliament onto the statute book before the next election.

However, it’s a short step from some chuntering on the backbenches, an intervention from the Esther McVey, some wobbliness from Labour and the British performing their own Rishi-style U-turn.

That’s why we need to double down to protect this measure straight away. For three reasons.

Firstly, it will save lives. Suggestions that smoking is old news, just because middle-class people stubbed out the habit are wide of the mark. Smoking is still a massive killer, particularly of poor people. Rishi could have gone further by implementing all the Khan Review recommendations, but the generational ban remains a massive boost to public health.

Secondly, it will spare the hard-pressed taxpayers a fortune in healthcare costs, welfare payments, and productivity – much more than cigarette levies will ever compensate, as a recent report from Lansdown Economics emphatically proved.

But most of all, it shows that we can collectively turn our backs on things that are bad for us, and that’s a habit we have somehow forgotten.

In Britain we know how to focus our collective efforts on social sins like racism, and homophobia. But on health we have given up ‘giving up’.

Instead of taking collective responsibility for our own health, we prefer to scapegoat the NHS. We build obesity clinics for children. We tolerate corrosive pornography and mind-bending algorithms in the digital world. We shrug our shoulders about rising alcohol deaths. As waiting lists boom, the NHS wastes its precious resources on gambling clinics because we can’t say no to a flutter.

The results are that half of Britain is overweight, a quarter of the country carries a chronic disease and the resulting pressures are overwhelming the NHS and ruining the economy despite record spending, doctors and nurses.

Long-term ill health rose by 86,000 in the first three months of 2023 to 2.55m, and is now 438,000 higher than it was before the start of the pandemic. We blame a myriad of conditions from Long Covid, to workplace blues, to waiting waiting lists.

Government tinkers with welfare tweaks, sports initiatives, technology funds and the rest. Meanwhile, rising workforce absence means Gatwick closes traffic-control towers, restaurants cannot open for lunch and the OBR reckons it will cost the economy £22bn next year.

The power of the UK-style smoking ban is that its emphatic, a clear signal that one day there will no smoking at all, full-stop, end of story. We are not starting an industry forum, or improving a treatment, or writing a report, or teaching children. Instead, a horrible, addictive habit that costs the country a fortune will be closed down, for good.

It is a victory for the belief that we can make this country healthy again.

I started smoking when working at the Ministry of Sound and gave up when I became a Dad. It was a struggle, but it was a small first step in getting on top of my health.

Britain needs to take the same small step.

I am hopeful for technology, but we have to be realistic that fat-jabs alone won’t make us healthy and AI alone will not improve the NHS. We have to accept that the national covenant on health cannot just be, ‘come what may, the NHS will pick you when you fall down’.

We all need to do our bit. That means tackling the junk food cycle, as Henry Dimbleby has advocated for so powerfully. It means cleaning our dirty air, renovating mouldy homes, tackling workplace bullies, taking down violent pornography and ticking off all those determinants of health that are costing us a fortune. Government has a key role to play and mandates are necessary when closing down addictive habits. But we all needs to do our bit.

The UK-style cigarette ban does not take a single cigarette out of a smokers mouth. For that reason, I wish it had gone further. But as a first step on the road to national recovery, it is a critical move so we need to fight hard to protect its passage through parliament.

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Lord Bethell is a former health minister and a member of the House of Lords.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.