4 February 2024

Weekly briefing: How Britain learned to love the ban


What a week it’s been for the nanny state. In what will have come as a shock to us all, Heineken announced that the strength of John Smith’s Extra Smooth is to be reduced from 3.6% to 3.4% ABV. Oh, and on Monday the government declared its intention to push ahead with a ban on disposable vapes. In a LADBible exclusive, the Prime Minister explained that the ban is needed to prevent youth vaping and that the flavours on offer are apparently hypnotic to impressionable young minds, so they’re going to be prohibited too.

This ban, like any other act of prohibition, is unlikely to work. For starters, it is already illegal to sell vapes to children, but they’re still getting their hands on them. Why then wouldn’t children, just as adults will have to, simply shift to refillable ones? A wiser idea would be to probe why the police are failing to stop shopkeepers flogging these vapes to under-18s, and then make sure that existing laws are enforced properly. This would make far more sense than preventing smokers from accessing a less harmful tobacco alternative.

Therein lies another problem with the policy. After announcing a generational tobacco ban as part of his plan for a ‘smoke-free’ Britain, where is the logic in the Prime Minister proceeding to ban one of the most effective means of quitting smoking? According to the NHS, almost two-thirds of smokers who switch to vapes alongside accessing support services successfully quit, and reports have also shown that, while it isn’t risk-free, vaping carries a fraction of the risk of smoking. As any smoker who has tried to quit will tell you, it’s bloody difficult, and banning a product which aids that is not only nonsensical, but amounts to an inadvertently pro-tobacco policy.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the ban, however, is how popular it is. Before it was announced, a government poll found that 70% of respondents were in favour of the measure. Perhaps this isn’t surprising. In a particularly depressing article for The Spectator, James Kirkup wrote that ‘the collective response of Britain to banning fags and vapes has been: yeah, fair enough’. He also argued that the ‘dark secret’ of those opposed to the expansion of the nanny state is that they know the public isn’t behind them.

While it pains me to say it, Kirkup might be right. Britain’s tastes are changing. In the age of fitness influencers and crushed avocado, young people just aren’t as interested in drinking and smoking as they used to be, and maybe people like me just need to get with the times.

Maybe. Or maybe not. Although it would be foolish to suggest that the extent of our freedom comes down to the ease with which we can smoke or vape, Britain’s passivity in the face of clear state overreach is deeply alarming. While Sunak is right to crack down on underage vaping, this measure is misguided, and Britons must be wary of sleepwalking into illiberalism. You can take our disposable vapes, Mr Sunak, but you’ll never take our freedom…

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Joseph Dinnage is Deputy Editor of Capx.