4 June 2021

Why banning tobacco could actually be a boon for smokers


In my last piece, I wrote about the obvious disconnect between libertarian arguments for treating illegal drugs like tobacco “even as society creeps towards banning cigarettes”.

As if to prove my point, Oxfordshire Council has now declared its intention to try and become the first “smoke-free” county in England, via measures including banning smoking in outdoor public spaces.

This is all wearisomely inevitable. Most self-styled opponents of the ‘nanny state’ in government circles long ago conceded the essential arguments to their opponents. By failing to develop a coherent counter-theory of personal freedoms and responsibilities, they have left themselves no leg to stand on whenever the next tranche of restrictions is proposed.

Put more simply, anyone who talks a good game on personal freedom but shies away from actually repealing any existing restrictions on it – as opposed to simply opposing the next one – is not serious and not to be taken seriously.

But perhaps the irresistible direction of tobacco policy need not be quite so dismaying to the smoker as it first appears. In fact, it is just possible that full-throated prohibition may even wind up better for the canny consumer than the current order of things.

If that seems odd, consider this section from my drugs piece:

“The virtue of legalisation is not just a libertarian fantasy about over-the-counter cocaine. Nor is it just about the revenue possibilities of new sin taxes. Sensible legalisation proposals focus on the benefits of making advice and information available at the point of sale, regulating the volume of a given substance sold to a customer, and being able to work with legitimate pharmaceutical companies to regulate product potency and purity.”

Those are certainly solid arguments from a state revenue and public safety point of view. But as I pointed out, that isn’t necessarily a better deal for the average consumer than the status quo. ‘Over-the-counter cocaine’ is actually a big step backwards from home-delivery cocaine. And nobody likes paying taxes.

When Canada legalised marijuana, the result was an expensive, heavily-regulated product and a police crackdown on the ecosystem of headshops which had grown up under the old, often light-touch enforcement model. (The state is, unsurprisingly, much less indulgent when the product competes with its own, revenue-raising alternative.)

All this will be familiar to the British smoker. Punitive taxes make tobacco absurdly expensive. Plain packaging insults the buyer. Flavoured cigarettes are banned, and bars and businesses are almost completely prohibited from catering to smokers indoors.

Yet despite that, most smokers continue to buy their cigarettes over the counter. The contrast between them and buyers of coke, ecstasy, acid, mushrooms, ketamine, and other narcotics – tax-free, home-delivery, maybe from peer-reviewed online sellers – is quite something, given that the latter are illegal and often carry serious prison sentences.

It isn’t as if alternatives aren’t available. Cigarettes especially continue to be sold very cheaply in many parts of the world, and in all their guises, including menthols and my beloved Indonesian kreteks.

And a black market does already exist. According to a survey commissioned by the Tobacco Manufacturers Association published last year, 76% of smokers had bought untaxed tobacco in the previous 12 months, and almost half were prepared to buy duty-free tobacco where it was available. Some 15% ‘only’ smoked branded cigarettes (defying plain packaging laws). The press release makes no mention of things like flavoured cigarettes, but this study of the illicit tobacco market cites “not available tobacco products” as one of the drivers.

Despite this, however, most smokers are buying legal, unflavoured, unbranded tobacco most of the time. The presence of a state-sanctioned alternative stunts the development of the black market, even when it mostly just offers higher prices and less choice.

This ought to give those pushing for a ‘smoke-free society’ some pause for thought. There is little reason to suppose that outright prohibition of tobacco – and that is clearly the end point of the current policy direction – will be more successful than the outright prohibition of any other narcotic.

Instead, they may simply push more smokers to make the leap to the black market, creating more incentives for smugglers and distributers to enter that market in turn. A virtuous circle for the savvy smoker – but a woeful result for the police, the Treasury, and indeed ‘public health’.

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Henry Hill is News Editor of ConservativeHome.

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