Christopher Snowdon is an author and freelance journalist. He writes for Sp!ked and other publications. He is also a research fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs.
In recent years, endorsing draconian anti-smoking policies have been easy way for politicians who wish to look tough and courageous. The succession of inexperienced MPs who have been installed as Ministers for Public Health (a junior post created by Tony Blair) have gained themselves considerable attention by latching onto the latest ban proposed by the medical establishment. The notion that this requires courage is a self-serving bluff. Few listen to what the supposed Goliath of the tobacco industry has to say, and smokers themselves are increasingly viewed as second class citizens. Passing laws that punish a pariah industry and its marginalised customers does not require heroics and politicians know it. Nicola Roxon, the former Australian health minister who was awarded a prize for her “truly extraordinary courage” in bringing in plain packaging, privately confided to a supporter that taking on the tobacco industry was a “a no-brainer… How do you lose, even if you lose? Big tobacco … everyone hates them … so really, having a fight with them can’t hurt.”
One consequence of the “something must be done” attitude towards smoking in government is that nearly everything has been done. The quixotic policy of plain packaging is at the bottom of a well-scraped barrel. When Action on Smoking and Health surveyed the public in 2008, plain packaging was the least popular of the dozen anti-smoking policies they suggested, with less than half of those questioned in support. It has risen to the top of the list largely as a result of an exceptionally nanny statist Australian government showing campaigners that it was politically feasible. If it feels as if the issue has been around forever it is because the campaigners have spent so much (taxpayers’) money on the crusade that they will not let it go.
It is only four months since the UK government put the policy on ice, wisely deciding to monitor the situation in Australia. Since then, the only evidence that has surfaced is a study which found there are more counterfeit cigarettes in Australia than there were before, a study that found no decline in the Australian smoking rate, and a survey that found that some Australian smokers had thought about quitting but hadn’t actually done so. This hardly represents a compelling case for Britain to introduce a legally dubious policy that has been rejected in a public consultation and is likely to boost an already sizeable black market in tobacco.
The interesting question, therefore, is why the Conservatives resurrected the idea when all the rumours about the alleged influence of Lynton Crosby (never substantiated and explicitly denied by the Australian) had died down. An anonymous source told The Times that “This will nail Labour’s ridiculous smears. Now the pressure will be on Labour to get behind this amendment to enable the introduction of standardised packaging.” Labour had themselves rejected plain packaging when they were in office and seem to have changed their mind mainly in order to oppose the Tories. The policy always had more than a whiff of gesture politics about it, but it is now a gesture that is entirely about politics.