John Humphrys - Smoking: Bring on the Nanny State?

April 19, 2024, 2:49 PM GMT+0

Tonsilitis probably saved my life. I was one of those little kids who got it at least once a year and it didn’t stop when I grew up. By the time I reached my twenties it was so painful and so frequent my doctor said I’d have to have my tonsils removed. So I did. It was the first and only operation I ever had and, of course, it worked. No tonsils equals no tonsilitis.

But when I checked out of the hospital my doctor asked me if I smoked. I said yes. Of course I did. It was one of those rites of passage for a working class kid like me. By the time you were in your teens your big brother and nearly all your friends were puffing away and of course you wanted to copy them to prove you were grown up too. You could buy a packet of two Woodbines for not much more than the cost of a bar of chocolate and the shopkeeper didn’t care how old you were.

By my late teens I was smoking at least twenty a day. By my early twenties it was thirty or more. Unfiltered, of course, and very strong. I knew it was a bad thing to do and I tried (under great pressure from the girl who was to become my wife) to give it up. But I failed. And anyway I enjoyed it and couldn’t really imagine living without it.

But that, said my doctor, would have to stop. The effect of the tonsils operation would see to that. I didn’t really believe him and when I got home I lit up. It was unbelievably painful. That was the last cigarette I ever smoked.

You will know where this modest confessional tale is leading, with a ban on smoking clearing its first parliamentary hurdle this week. No fewer than 383 MPs voted in favour. I am going to make the assumption that most of you, dear readers, approve of the ban in principle. That is the very clear message delivered by the opinion polls.

Where it becomes rather less clear-cut is how and when a ban will be implemented. Or, indeed, whether it really is a ‘ban’ at all in the strict sense of the word. And whether we should be wary of the ‘nanny state’.

It’s not as if we shall all wake up next Thursday week - or indeed any day in the immediate future - and find that cigarettes have been removed from every newsagent in town. Nor indeed will squads of specially trained police officers roam the land sniffing out (literally) any miscreants who might have discovered an illicit cigarette supplier and been practising their outlawed habit in secret. Quite the opposite.

For a start, the restrictions will apply to the sale of cigarettes in the UK rather than the act of smoking itself. So it would be possible to pop over the Channel, buy a pack or two, bring them back to this country and smoke away to your heart’s (if not your lungs’) content. That assumes, of course, you can find somewhere where it is not already prohibited and you are not under the age of 18. And this is where the new law would bite.

At present the legal age or smoking is 18. Under the new law, that will increase by one year for every year that passes. So what that means is that people born in or after 2009 will never be able to buy cigarettes legally. In other words: an effective ban. But the new law will not affect those who are allowed to buy cigarettes now. In other words, those who are 18 or over.

To crack down on under-age sales, the government says it will introduce £100 on-the-spot fines for shops in England and Wales which sell tobacco and vapes to under-age people. This would be on top of the £2,500 fines that courts can already impose. The government says it will spend £30m on enforcement, which will include tackling the availability of cigarettes on the black market.

It justifies the new measures on the basis of the health statistics. It says they show that smoking is still the number one preventable cause of death, disability and ill health, causing around 80,000 deaths per year across the UK, and costing the NHS and the economy an estimated £17bn every year. It says creating a "smoke-free generation" could prevent more than 470,000 cases of heart disease, stroke, lung cancer and other diseases by the end of the century.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, this new legislation has been welcomed by the medical profession. In a letter to The Times Professor Jonathan Grigg of Queen Mary University of London quotes Sir Richard Doll and Sir Austin Bradford Hill who conducted a study into the effect of smoking back in 1950. He writes: ‘Their subsequent long-term study of 40,000 UK doctors firmly established that smoking not only caused lung cancer but also a wide range of other life-shortening conditions. Why this evil business has been allowed to continue for so long must be difficult to comprehend for families of loved ones who have died prematurely from smoking.’

Grigg says the new law would be ‘an exceptional public health measure in that it re-establishes legislative momentum to remove this global scourge.’ But he adds this warning for politicians: ‘The next government must not support the dark arts of the tobacco industry or heed the cries of “nanny state” but rapidly build on this landmark legislation and invest in cessation services that appeal to all generations of smokers and vapers.’

And indeed there have already been many ‘cries of nanny state’ – not least from Boris Johnson and Liz Truss. Johnson called the proposed law ‘absolutely nuts’. He told a conference in Canada it was ‘mad that the party of Winston Churchill was banning cigars’. Introducing bans and strict regulations, he said, was a feature of more autocratic societies such as Russia.

Liz Truss said the ban is the result of a “technocratic establishment” that is aiming to “limit people’s freedom” and described Rishi Sunak’s bill as a “virtue-signalling piece of legislation”. She warned her Tory colleagues that there were enough “finger-wagging, nannying control freaks” on the opposition benches willing to support the proposals and urged urging Conservatives to instead ‘stand by our principles and our ideals.’

Ms Truss told the Commons: ‘The problem is that the instinct of this establishment… is to believe that the Government are better at making decisions for people than people themselves. I absolutely agree that that is true for the under-18s. It is very important that until people have decision-making capability while they are growing up, that we protect them. But I think the whole idea that we can protect adults from themselves is hugely problematic and it effectively infantilises people, and that is what has been going on.’

Simon Jenkins in The Guardian has his doubts about the new legislation for other reasons: ‘Evasion will be easy. Acquisition will be merely an inconvenience. Black markets will flourish and the chief victims will be shopkeepers and tax gatherers.’

That’s part of the reason why, he writes, a similar proposal in New Zealand collapsed recently: ‘The fallacy of restricting the consumption of a product by trying to limit supply is a standard economics issue. It does not curb demand, it merely increases price. Half a century of Britain’s supply-obsessed “war on drugs” is proof enough of that, as were America’s attempts at prohibiting alcohol. Tobacco use in Britain is declining – despite it levelling off during Covid – largely through public health and education. Let it continue to decline.’

So where do you stand on this? Let’s assume that you worry about smoking and the damage it does to our health. Do you, even so, share concerns about the so-called ‘nanny state’? Can you think of any other way of reducing the number of smokers – especially children – without the government having to intervene? And do you agree with those who point out that obesity is even more harmful than smoking and therefore that’s what the government should be most worried about?

And finally are you a smoker… and, if so, would you like to stop?

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