Ban these evil coloured boxes!

The Lib-Cons’ restrictions on cigarette displays in shops shows how little they think of us — and of freedom.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

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It’s official: young people are dumb. They are so unbelievably dumb, so desperate for mental stimulation, that they can become hooked on cigarettes just by looking at the pretty packets and the cabinets they’re displayed in. Well, that’s what the Lib-Con government seems to think.

The Department of Health has announced that it will ban the display of cigarettes for sale from 2012 in large stores and 2015 in smaller stores. The government will also launch a consultation on whether cigarettes should only be sold in plain white packets, with just the name of the brand and the usual health warnings.

The new policies are, officially, a response to the fact that after decades of decline, smoking rates have more or less plateaued in recent years. The health secretary, Andrew Lansley, said: ‘My ambition is to reduce smoking rates faster over the next five years than has been achieved in the past five years. We want to do everything we can to help people to choose to stop smoking and encourage young people not to start smoking in the first place.’

The chief medical officer for England, Dame Sally Davies, backed Lansley’s plan: ‘Nearly all adult smokers started smoking before they turned 18 and every year, over 300,000 children under 16 try smoking. I strongly support the ending of tobacco displays in shops. We cannot ignore the targeting of young people through these displays that encourage and recruit them to start smoking at an age when they are less able to make an informed choice.’

There is a massive non sequitur in Davies’ argument. Just because lots of children try smoking doesn’t mean that they did so because of tobacco displays or packet designs. As Patrick Basham and John Luik have pointed out elsewhere on spiked, the evidence that banning tobacco displays will cut smoking rates is pretty much non-existent. In fact, smoking rates have often gone up after such measures were introduced.

Indeed, the belief that making something more mysterious and more illicit is going to discourage young people from trying it demonstrates remarkable ignorance. Smoking is one of those rite-of-passage activities that allows an older child to demonstrate that they are, in fact, a grown-up. Moreover, having spent the past few years treating adults more and more like children, the government has inspired an adolescent-like ‘fuck you’ attitude to health campaigns from many people, where smoking becomes a tiny show of passive resistance to being constantly lectured about what to do. That was rather neatly illustrated by the appearance of supermodel Kate Moss on a Paris catwalk yesterday with a lighted cigarette in her hand. Anti-smoking campaigners had a fit, naturally.

Above all, it is also stretching credulity to believe that a generation surrounded by iPhones, Playstations, Xboxes, satellite TV and the internet could find mere coloured bits of card – cigarette packets – so tantalising that they are unable to resist the cancer sticks inside.

What the ban would do, however, is make life even harder for small shopkeepers who are already facing considerable financial pressures. The major supermarket chains have already moved into convenience stores in a big way. Newspaper sales, once a good excuse to get people into the shop in the hope they’d buy other items, too, have been declining in recent years.

On top of that, a considerable proportion of the income of many small shops comes from the sale of cigarettes and alcohol. There are already plans to introduce minimum pricing for booze. Shopkeepers will now be worried that tobacco display bans will discourage adults from buying cigarettes at their stores, while having no effect on younger smokers who aren’t legally allowed to buy in shops anyway. There’s a real possibility that young people will carry on getting cigarettes through their current, informal channels while adult smokers buy in bulk more often from the supermarkets or even from tax-dodging illegal sellers.

It’s a strange decision, particularly from a pro-business party like the Conservatives that might once have been expected to treat the promotion of legal products by companies as some kind of inalienable right. But while it may seem illogical, the decision is no surprise because this government is simply carrying on in the same illiberal vein as the last one. After all, it was New Labour who promised to restrict smoking in workplaces and many public places in its 2005 General Election manifesto only to go right ahead and introduce a complete ban instead in 2007. The idea of a ban on tobacco displays was first introduced by the last government, too.

So Diane Abbott, Labour’s shadow public health minister, smugly declared: ‘We welcome the fact that [Prime Minister] Cameron and Lansley are building on Labour’s strategy, but there is widespread concern that the advances in smoking policy may be coming to a halt. The Tory-led government has imposed a freeze on mass media health campaigns including smoking, cut the smoking policy team at the Department of Health, and dithered over tobacco displays.’

In reality, the major parties are slugging it out over who can be the most illiberal. While both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats made some positive noises about rolling back the state prior to last year’s General Election, in office they have been an absolute match for New Labour in terms of interfering in our private lives. You couldn’t call it unexpected. When the ever-so libertarian-sounding Boris Johnson became London mayor, his first act was to ban the drinking of alcohol on London transport. The current government is so determined to get us to do the ‘right thing’ that there is an entire policy team in Downing Street dedicated to ‘nudging’ us in the right direction.

While there have been some small, but welcome, shifts in policy on the vetting of those who work with children and on some specific civil liberties issues, the reality is that personal autonomy and freedom are all but disregarded in British politics today. Instead, we are all seen as ‘vulnerable’ in one way or another, with the state stepping in to watch over us. The effect is to exaggerate fears and to undermine constantly our sense of having the capacity to cope with problems as they arise or make decisions for ourselves.

This creates a situation where the authorities will step in to regulate and restrict everyday life on the flimsiest of pretexts. So, as Sally Davies suggests, our children need to be protected from evil tobacco manufacturers luring the young and vulnerable into a life of addiction through, err… a neatly laid-out tobacco display case.

Defending the right to sell tobacco in a particular manner is not going to send the masses to the barricades. But the implication that we are so feeble that we cannot be trusted to protect our health in the face of some coloured boxes is a very good reason to oppose this ban. It also shows that any Lib-Con pretence to being defenders of personal freedom has long since gone up in smoke.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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