Labour's new tobacco control policy is a damp squib from a government that won't be around to implement it. There are no surprises since all the proposed policies were pencilled in by the anti-smoking movement some years ago. They include plain packaging, banning cigarette machines and possibly extending smoking bans to some outdoor areas. Tell us one we haven't heard before.
If implemented, none of these will have any real effect on smoking habits. I would anticipate widespread opposition to restricting smoking outdoors from the British public who, contrary to received wisdom, have never fully supported a total ban indoors (as the British Social Attitudes survey revealed) and even the pub industry might wake from its slumber to fight off that particular idea. Banning cigarette machines will create mild inconvenience at best. Plain packaging is a piece of Soviet silliness which will only lead people to smoke cheaper brands.
Still setting arbitrary targets even in its twilight years, Labour has decided to reduce the smoking rate from 21% to 10% by 2020. Health Minister Andy Burnham "firmly believes" this is achievable, saying:
"One day, in the not too distant future, we'll look back and find it hard to remember why anyone ever smoked in the first place."
Burnham is truly ignorant of history if he believes this. As if to illustrate how deluded he is, Burnham's announcement coincides with Italy reporting a surge in smoking since its smoking ban:
More than two million people have started smoking again since the country’s authorities imposed a UK-style ban in 2005.
The law, which made smoking in all indoor public places illegal, bore results at first, with loyal customers choosing not to place owners of their favourite bars and restaurants at risk of massive fines.
But an initial 12 per cent drop in cigarette sales has been reversed, with the latest shock figures revealing that Italy now boasts a record 13 million smokers.
Nothing being proposed today has the potential to modify behaviour like the smoking ban did, and - as events in Italy and elsewhere show - that piece of legislation never came close to fulfilling the grand promises that were made of it. It has been, by and large, a socially divisive failure which had minimal impact on the smoking rate.
The fact is, the government and the anti-smoking lobby are running out of ideas and have resorted to schemes drawn up by the lunatic fringe. At the same time, they face a public that is becoming increasingly tired of nanny state politics. They can set whatever targets they like but the big question in 2010 is not how the government can change the people but how the people can change the government.