Thursday, 19 July 2018

The Tobacco Control Plan debate


In the previous post, I mentioned the parliamentary debate on tobacco control that had been organised by Action on Smoking and Health (ASH). It took place this afternoon and was streamed online so I watched it. As you can see from the photo above, it was sparsely attended. What you can't see is that was dominated by members of the All Party Group on Smoking and Health, a sockpuppet in-house pressure group created by ASH in the 1970s of which ASH remains the secretariat.

It began with a speech by Steve Brine who said that there are no plans for any more legislation but that the government would work hard to achieve its self-imposed target of having a smoking rate of no more than 12 per cent by 2022.

It is important to recognise that this is now the sole justification for the harassment, extortion and stigmatisation of smokers. The tobacco control crusade is no longer based on market failure arguments, as weak as those were. Nor is it based on equally flimsy claims about the tobacco industry somehow tricking people into smoking. The justification now is that the government has set arbitrary targets for how many people should be smoking by a certain year and that these must be met. It doesn't matter whether you want to smoke or not. It doesn't matter whether you enjoy smoking. It doesn't matter whether you understand the risks and are prepared to take them. The government has decided that the country will be 'smokefree' at some point in the next two decades (note how the meaning of 'smokefree' has changed since 2007) and that is the end of the matter.

Steve Brine might not want more legislation in the foreseeable future but ASH does. After Brine spoke, Bob Blackman, the chairman of their APPG, argued for ASH's pet policies, notably a tobacco industry levy modelled on the Master Settlement Agreement, more money for stop-smoking services and more anti-smoking campaigns. He was followed by Alex Cunningham, also an APPG member, who thanked ASH for helping him prepare his speech and called for a clampdown on smoking on TV (another ASH favourite), raising the age of purchase to 21 and licensing tobacco retailers. He also wants some sort of leaflet to be inserted in cigarette packs to tell people that smoking is bad for their health (who knew?).

Kevin Barron, the vice-chair of the APPG, stood up and called for much the same. There was some delusional stuff about eliminating the illicit trade in tobacco while continuing to raise tobacco duty, and there was much talk of tackling health inequalities which, in tobacco as in food, is code for forcing the habits of the managerial class upon ordinary people. Nauseatingly, both Barron and Cunningham gave figures of how many people would be lifted out of poverty if they stopped smoking. With tobacco duty making up 80-90 per cent of the price of tobacco products, this only confirms how regressive this form of taxation is. It is the tax, not the tobacco, that causes the secondary poverty.

Barron noted that Ireland and the UK have exactly the same anti-smoking legislation and yet the UK's smoking rate has fallen by a quarter since 2012 whereas, he said, the smoking rate had fallen by very little in Ireland. He attributed the difference to the UK embracing e-cigarettes and he is doubtless correct, but he did not draw the other obvious conclusion: that the 'world class' anti-smoking legislation which both countries have embraced is useless.

In short, the government has looked back on five years in which the smoking rate has fallen at a remarkably fast pace and decided to take a legislative breather. Tobacco taxes will continue to rise above inflation and we can expect to black market to rise further as a result, but Steve Brine is not concerned about this because he has signed a WHO treaty aimed at eliminating the illicit trade (stop giggling at the back).

None of the speakers mentioned the damage done by EU legislation on snus, e-cigarettes or novel nicotine devices, nor did they propose that this legislation be repealed after Brexit. To be fair, there was some recognition that e-cigarettes have been behind the recent trend in smoking cessation but the speakers were too blasé in assuming that the trend towards harm reduction will continue given the regulatory obstacles it faces.

No comments: