Smoker or non-smoker, your freedom is at stake

It doesn’t matter if you’ve never lit up in your life - you should still be agitated by the paternalism of the plan to put fags in plain packets.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

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At first glance, the debate about whether tobacco manufacturers should be forced to put their products in standardised packaging doesn’t sound like the Greatest Issue of Our Time. There will be no barricades raised, there will be no ‘plain-pack martyrs’. But anyone who believes that we – both individuals and companies – should be free to choose how we go about our business and conduct our lives should be very concerned indeed.

The UK Lib-Con coalition government has announced that it will shortly begin consulting on the idea of introducing ‘plain packaging’. In Australia, where such a policy has already been voted through, to be implemented from the end of 2012, ‘plain’ is a total misnomer. Down Under, 90 per cent of the surface of every pack will be covered in health warnings and gruesome imagery of disease. Just 10 per cent will be left to tell you what brand you are smoking. For smokers, it’s not so much guidance as gorno. Early indications suggest that UK proposals will be similar.

The tobacco industry is very upset, to say the least, about the possible consequences. That’s not because producers think that people will smoke much less. There is little likelihood of that. A raft of measures to try to bully or nag us into smoking less has already come into force with little impact on smoking rates: stiff taxes on cigarettes; bans on smoking in many public and private spaces; prohibitions on advertising and sponsorship; enormous budgets devoted to nagging us to quit for the sake of our health or that of our children; endless junk science about second-hand and even ‘third-hand’ smoking. If that lot hasn’t had the desired affect, packaging is unlikely to persuade us to give up the ‘evil weed’.

What really concerns the cigarette makers is that the new rules would obliterate overnight the brands that the industry has built up over decades. Devoid of brand loyalty, smokers have little incentive to buy an expensive make of cigarettes over a cheaper one. There’s also the problem of counterfeiting: it’s going to be much easier to produce fakes if every cigarette box looks almost identical.

Nor is it just manufacturers who are worried. While health departments instigate one policy after another, each inspired by intense lobbying from tobacco prohibitionists (lobbying paid for by those very health departments), those who hold government purse strings will be fretting about the increasing incentives for tax avoidance (like buying in bulk from abroad) or tax evasion (buying from bootleggers and smugglers).

But even if you’re not a smoker, or don’t care greatly for the welfare of tobacco companies and Treasury bean-counters, you should be worried about the plain-packaging plan.

Firstly, because smoking has always been at the forefront of attempts to regulate our behaviour according to the concerns of petty bureaucrats and authoritarian campaigners. What plain packaging represents is the latest phase in the state’s invasion of our lives. What gets passed into law in the ‘unique’ case of smokers soon becomes standard practice elsewhere. As spiked has always argued, from the day we launched in 2001, we should not stand for the regimentation of our lives into dull, sober, fear-driven conformity. We should be free to live out lives as we see fit, and we should strive to tolerate each other’s choices – even those petty vices that sometimes irritate us.

Secondly, plain packaging should worry us because the thinking behind it is that we are morons; that we make our choices in a kind of monkey-see, monkey-do ignorance. So, if anti-smoking campaigners are to be believed, we smoke because we’re hypnotised by shiny packaging. We are so stupid that we forget about the endless warnings of health risks as soon as we catch sight of a slickly designed logo. All that is needed, therefore, is to replace those images with scary, unpleasant alternatives and the job is done. Our tiny brains will instantly recoil at the idea of smoking and we will fall into line. In fact, the real morons are the politicians and crusaders who have such a diminished view of our intellects.

It may come as a shock to those who want to micromanage our lifestyles, but drinkers, smokers and lovers of fast food are not stupid. We’ve got the message that fags, booze and all the other wicked little pleasures are bad for us. The real reason that people engage in moderately unhealthy behaviours like these – so mildly unhealthy that we have to do them often and regularly over the course of decades to cause us serious harm – is that we enjoy them. We balance the long-term risks against short-term pleasure. That’s a far more sophisticated understanding of what it means to live life well than these grey and miserable latter-day Puritans could ever manage.

It also makes packaging a free-speech issue. The question of free speech has always had two sides. One side is the freedom to be able to say what you want in public without censorship. It is a sad state of affairs when even printing what you want on a packet of cigarettes is deemed unacceptable. Freedom in this respect must be indivisible, applying to big corporations as much as those fighting against oppression and exploitation or expressing a controversial political view.

The other side is the freedom to read what you want and make up your own mind. It is premised on the notion of the equal, free and competent citizen, without which democracy is just a meaningless ritual. If we can’t even be trusted with a label and a logo, what hope is there for no-holds-barred public discourse on things that really matter?

Smoker or non-smoker, your freedom is at stake. We should oppose the plain-packaging proposal and every other attempt by this nasty alliance of control freaks to regulate our lives.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked. Follow him on Twitter: @Robspiked.

Find out more about the campaign against plain packaging, Hands Off Our Packs.

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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