4 October 2023

The smoking ban is a breath of fresh air

By Lord Bethell

Some Conservatives may lament the PM’s anouncment of New Zealand-style restrictions on young smokers, but I am praising Rishi to the rafters. 

I appreciate that Government interventions in our lives continue to grow in an age where state intrusion is at its peak. From 20mph zones to ubiquitous CCTV and lockdowns, the government’s influence has expanded. 

As Conservatives, we should exercise caution. 

The Prime Minister’s offer of a free vote aside, these new laws enforce interventions with the full weight of the courts, potentially leading to imprisonment for sales to those underage. The constant erosion of our liberties through mandatory measures is concerning. As a Parliamentarian and Conservative, I believe it is essential to scrutinize such measures closely. We must be mindful of the impact on our freedoms, our national psyche, and the infantilization of our people.

Nevertheless, Conservatives acknowledge that we live in a civil society with shared responsibilities. We are pragmatists who understand the complexity of balancing various freedoms to find the best solutions for our country and future generations.

Personally, I value freedom from addiction. I took up smoking during my time at the Ministry of Sound, often for social reasons and to stay awake during late-night shifts. It was a foolish choice. As a hedonistic clubber in the 1990s, I had some regrettable habits, but smoking proved the most challenging to overcome. It took years of effort, but the evidence is clear that most smokers struggle to break free from this highly addictive habit.

While I wish policymakers could help those who want to quit smoking find their path to recovery, cigarettes are so potent that most smokers continue until their health deteriorates. I am passionate about ensuring my children remain free from the burdensome, pointless, and costly addiction to smoking.

In the interest of limited government principles, I wish we could leave individuals to decide whether to smoke in the privacy of their homes. However, public health messages and appeals to self-control have failed to deter new smokers, particularly those from deprived communities who face challenging lives. Approximately 13% of the population, primarily from these communities, continues to smoke, imposing a significant economic burden on themselves and the country.

We all cherish financial security. But British taxpayers bear a heavy cost for the freedom of a minority to smoke themselves into health problems. In 2023, there will be 43,000 new preventable cases of lung cancer, with tobacco responsible for nine out of ten cases. The cost of each lung cancer case is approximately £630,000, a burden too great for taxpayers to bear. Smoking contributes to workforce absences, affecting businesses like Gatwick Airport, which had to shut down due to staff shortages.

I had ideological sympathy for Mark Littlewood of the Institute for Economic Affairs, a champion of liberty, when he declared that “The war on tobacco should be declared over.” However, thirteen years later, six million smokers remain in the UK. Smoking’s cost in 2023 will exceed £17bn, surpassing tobacco industry taxes. Small-state Conservatives should acknowledge that a rising tax burden and declining workforce productivity make Britain less competitive.

The NHS receives more funding while waiting lists grow longer because a quarter of the population suffers from chronic diseases, often related to smoking or obesity. A quarter of cancer cases are directly attributed to smoking. Doubling the NHS’s size, as predicted by some models, to protect the interests of tobacco, junk food, and gambling industries is unsustainable. Small-state Conservatives cannot oppose smoking regulations when inaction leads to soaring healthcare costs and tax increases to fund a larger NHS workforce.

Smoking undermines our national resilience and freedom to defend against viruses and external threats. Unhealthy citizens, often due to tobacco-related illnesses, result in higher hospitalization rates, quicker healthcare system collapses, and longer lockdowns during crises. Military experts estimate that most young people cannot pass physical fitness tests, often due to smoking.

I cherish pubs and even wrote a book celebrating them. But I have to acknowledge that the 2007 tobacco ban in indoor public spaces led to the most significant reduction in smoking ever seen in England, saving 40,000 lives in the following decade. While I lament pub closures in its aftermath, other factors may contribute.

Some, like MPs Therese Coffey and Elizabeth Truss, take a different stance. They voted in 2010 to exempt pubs and private members clubs not serving food from the smoking ban and in 2015 against plain packaging for cigarettes. Many MPs and Peers receive hospitality from tobacco companies. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak only partially accepted the Khan Review’s recommendations, opting for information leaflets in packs over comprehensive measures to achieve Britain’s 2030 SmokeFree target.

However, it’s worth noting that public support for action against smoking remains strong, with recent polls indicating 71% support for NZ-style smoking bans and only 17% opposition. Even smokers express a desire to quit, with two-thirds expressing this intention.

I would be devastated if my 16-year-old son took up smoking. Rishi is right, let’s “stop the start”. This law will protect him and his generation from the same addictions.

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Lord Bethell was a Junior Minister for Health during the pandemic and is a member of the House of Lords.

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