Thursday, 9 January 2020

The endless regulatory ratchet

Further to Tuesday's post about the number of smokers rising in Scotland, despite the introduction of wondrous policies like plain packaging, it is worth reading a document published last February by ASH's Westminster front group, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Smoking and Health. Titled Delivering the vision of a 'Smokefree Generation', it tries to justify an endless regulatory ratchet, saying:

The pioneering regulatory measures that the UK has adopted, such as the comprehensive advertising ban, smokefree laws, and packaging and labelling regulations including standardised packaging, have been highly effective and are largely self-sustaining.

They are not, however, sufficient to ensure smoking continues to decline, because it can be assumed that those who continue to smoke after a specific policy is put into effect have discounted it, so progressive strengthening of regulations over time is required.

Consequently, it calls for yet more laws, including a tobacco levy, licensing retailers and increasing the age of sale to 21.

I don't think I've come across this argument before. It certainly doesn't fit the logic of the traditional tobacco control narrative. We have been told for decades that tobacco control regulation is intended to deter new smokers from being 'recruited'.

When anti-smokers were lobbying for plain packaging, for example, they told us that it was needed because 207,000 children start smoking every year. Someone from Cancer Research UK said:

"Replacing slick, brightly coloured packs that appeal to children with standard packs displaying prominent health warnings is a vital part of efforts to protect health. Reducing the appeal of cigarettes with plain, standardised packs will give millions of children one less reason to start smoking."

That was in 2013, by the way. In 2019, ASH were still claiming that 'each year around 207,000 children in the UK start smoking' so I will let you be the judge of whether this shows that plain packaging was a flop or whether anti-smoking groups play hard and fast with statistics, or both.

But the point is they were clearly saying that a significant number of children start smoking because of 'slick, brightly coloured packs' and that this number would decline if such packs ceased to exist. Get rid of the packs and there is 'one less reason to start smoking'.

It was the same with the tobacco display ban, the advertising ban and other 'denormalisation' policies, including the smoking ban. These were permanent changes to the environment that would stop the evil tobacco industry 'luring' and 'recruiting' young people. They were supposed to make smoking less appealing and, on the margins at least, some of them may have done so.

These policies may not have any effect on current adult smokers, but that was not - ostensibly - their primary purpose. If fewer people start smoking, the smoking rate is bound to fall, because older smokers will quit or die. There is no reason why the smoking rate should bounce back, or even flatten out, if new policies are not introduced. If an advertising ban, high prices and plain packaging deter one generation of youngsters from smoking, they should deter the next generation and then the next.

As a matter of simple arithmetic, the argument in the ASH/APPG document makes no sense. Like many arguments in 'public health', it is post hoc rationalisation for a pre-ordained conclusion. It is nonetheless interesting for at least two reasons.

Firstly, it means that bans will continue to be ramped up ad infinitum, logically concluding with full prohibition.

Secondly, it is an overt statement of intent to go after adult smokers, rather than merely discourage minors from experimenting with tobacco. This, of course, has always been the case in practice - anguished pleas to 'think of the children' are nearly always a cover for restricting the freedom of adults - but the anti-smoking movement has traditionally pretended to respect the right of adults to smoke.

The new approach is nakedly illiberal, but what else can they do? They have run out of road on the argument about protecting kids. In tobacco control mythology, people don't enjoy smoking and they only start because the tobacco industry somehow manipulates them - after which they become hopelessly addicted and only think they enjoy it. By 2013, advertising had been banned for over a decade and it was becoming increasingly difficult for groups like ASH to explain why anybody took up the habit. Partly out of desperation, they portrayed cigarette packs as the 'last bastion of tobacco marketing' and fought for plain packaging.

They won. But, by accepting that the industry would have no conceivable way of attracting new customers once branding was banned, they implicitly accepted that anybody who took up smoking thereafter would do so of their free will.

The change in anti-smoking rhetoric has gone largely unnoticed, but it is crucial and may be decisive. The government's new tobacco control plan (in which ASH had a hand) is framed in the same way, as I noted when it was published last year:

Today’s announcement is not about stopping children smoking. It is about stopping everybody smoking. You could be smoking a fag in the middle of a field on your own during a gale and it would still be intolerable to the Department of Health. Under the Conservatives, there will be no more smoking.

The government gives no economic or ethical justification for stamping out a risky but pleasurable activity enjoyed by 14 per cent of the population over the next ten and a half years. It doesn’t bother with the usual tepid assurances about consenting adults having the right to smoke. How could it? The government doesn’t think anybody should smoke, and in the dying hours of Theresa May’s premiership, it is jolly well going to say so.  

Bullying adults into giving up smoking is incompatible with a free society, as is banning the sale of tobacco to young adults (as ASH now proposes). The question is whether, after decades of demonisation, smokers have enough allies who care about personal freedom to do anything about it.

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