8 June 2022

Raising the smoking age is a fig leaf for outright prohibition

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Rumour has it that raising the smoking age (or, more accurately, the age at which tobacco can be bought – there is no limit on when you can start smoking) will be one of the recommendations of the ‘Independent Review into Tobacco Control’ when it is published tomorrow.

The review has been carried out by Javed Khan, a former CEO of the charity Barnado’s. The idea behind it is to come up with yet more anti-smoking regulations because there are apparently not already enough. It is not clear why the Government can’t come up with policies itself, nor why Mr Khan, who has no particular expertise in this area, has been put in charge of it. 

An independent audit of tobacco control would be more appropriate. Anti-smoking campaigners pop up every few years with their stern faces to tell us that they have got a new evidence-based policy which the Government must act upon. The Government then dithers until the pressure builds enough for it to capitulate, the policy is introduced and we never hear about it again. The last one was plain packaging, which was portrayed as something of a panacea at the time (one of its more excitable advocates described it as a vaccine for lung cancer), but when the dust settled it turned out to have no effect on cigarette sales. Randomised controlled trials have since shown that it was never likely to work.

Independent reviews are supposed to ‘take the politics out’ of issues that are inherently political. They are supposed to generate ‘blue sky thinking’ and ‘thinking outside of the box’. In practice, they usually involve someone who doesn’t know a great deal about a subject being surrounded by activists, and who ends up parroting the activists’ demands. We saw this with Henry Dimbleby’s ‘National Food Strategy’ which was so full of conventional thinking that the Government had already announced some its policies by the time it was published.

With smoking, the leading activists in Britain are Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), a state-funded pressure group that has no membership but has a lot of friends in the Department of Health. In recent years, its policy priorities have been raising the smoking age to 21 and introducing a tobacco industry levy. I don’t wish to prejudge Mr Khan’s review – it may be filled with original and independent thinking for all I know – but according to the Guardian its main policy recommendations will be raising the smoking age to 21 and introducing a tobacco industry levy. Fancy that.

The levy would just be another tax on smokers. No matter how much you dress it up as a tax on industry, it would – as HMRC said in 2014 – ‘be entirely equivalent to an increase in the specific tax that currently exists on tobacco products’. The Treasury rejected it on this basis. You can’t put a windfall tax on companies that are not based in the UK and since there is already a regressive tobacco duty escalator which guarantees a 2% rise plus inflation, there is no point adding another stealth tax.

Raising the age at which tobacco can be purchased is more interesting. It is unlikely to generate much pushback from people over the age of 20, who will never be affected, and even people aged between 18 and 20 are unlikely to care since they will probably be aged 21 or over by the time the law comes into effect. The political debate will revolve around the more profound question of when does a child become an adult?

One point that will be made with tedious regularity is that many politicians want to lower the voting age to 16. Until 1970, you had to be 21 to vote but could buy tobacco at the age of 16. Are we heading for a situation in which these legal statuses are reversed?

Another common talking point will be the idea that you can ‘fight and die for your country’ at the age of 16. Actually, you can’t, but you can join the army at the age of 16 and you can certainly fight and die in it when you are 18. 

These points are made so often because they are obvious and rather powerful. If people are sensible enough to take the risk of going to war and responsible enough to elect their leaders, surely they have the wherewithal to weigh up the risks and benefits of smoking?

In practice, of course, moral questions about the age at which people reach maturity are irrelevant to the anti-smoking lobby. They are now more or less openly prohibitionist and talk freely about the ‘endgame’ in which the sale of cigarettes is ‘phased out’. Young adults are just the start. Once 20 year olds are deemed incapable of deciding whether they want to have a cigarette or not, the question will naturally turn to what the difference is between a 20 year old and a 25 year old, or indeed an adult of any age. 

The real question is whether we are happy to live in a society in which appropriately informed adults are free to buy and consume highly regulated tobacco products. A significant minority favour outright prohibition and they are entitled to their view, but if that is the goal, we should have that debate openly and put and end to the disingenuous salami-slicing tactics.

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Christopher Snowdon is the Head of Lifestyle Economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

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