Cllr Suleman Khonat is the national spokesman for the Tobacco Retailers’ Alliance and a Blackburn newsagent.
Today, on “World No Tobacco Day” the massed ranks of the publicaly funded anti-smoking lobby will crow about their great success in reducing smoking. However this war against the smoker has had a number of unpleasant side-effects, most notably by facilitating the growth of the black market in tobacco. By inflating the tax on a packet of cigarettes to make a packet equivalent to a ten pound note, they have re-orientated organised crime from trading in fake banknotes to trading in illicit and counterfeit tobacco.
This 50 year war against the corporate marketing of smoking, began with the ban on TV advertising in 1965, and ended a few weeks ago, with the abolition of the most basic right of manufacturers, to package their own product. By attacking tobacco the anti-smoking crusaders have damaged local shops (like mine) that rely on tobacco revenue to survive – a third of the income of the average corner shop is made up from sales of tobacco.
Many people are unaware of how vulnerable local shops are; but the situation is indeed grim. With increased costs due to the living wage, and greater competition due to the supermarkets invasion of the high streets, with online shopping and supermarket home deliveries, the viability of thousands of convenience shops is now in doubt. In this climate, the loss of a single product category could be terminal. A recent survey by the TRA showed that 87 per cent of local shop owners believe they would be forced to close if they lost the ability to sell tobacco.
The anti-smoking lobby seem to have no understanding of the fact that people can both understand and accept a level of risk in their daily lives. We all know that eating fatty food involves risk, as does driving a car, drinking alcohol or smoking. Life involves balancing risk with pleasure, because a life that involved no risk would be barely worth living. But the public health nannies insist on treating smokers like children. So they go on nagging us about risks, on leaflets in the doctor’s surgery, on health warnings on every product, via TV adverts and billboards; as if these warnings were telling smokers anything they didn’t already know.
The weight of legislation just keeps on growing. Shopkeepers have been hit with a sandstorm of government measures in the last two years, that have resulted in many shops going to the wall. The display ban was implemented for small shops in 2015, followed by the ban on small cigarette packets and the ban on packaging. Flavoured tobacco will also be banned from 2020. And every year the “duty escalator” means that tobacco gets more and more expensive.
The other nasty side of anti-smoking, aside from its attack on consumer choice, retailers and tax revenue, is its blatant attempt to stigmatise smoking and demonise smokers. I have an advantage over the public health lobbyists, because I see smokers every day in my shop in Blackburn. They are not haggard, sick-looking individuals, as they are pictured in the anti-smoking adverts. They are just like everybody else. Yes some of them express a desire to quit, just like many people say they would like to be thin. This does not mean they really want to give up. What they want is the freedom to make the choice for themselves and the right not to have their pockets picked by the Government every time they purchase tobacco.
It is my view that the “war on smokers” has got precious little to do with health. The current campaign is similar to the last anti-smoking crusade a century ago, which again was led by middle-class do-gooders, and was an attack on the pleasures of ordinary people. The modern public health lobby share several characteristics of prohibitionists throughout the ages, they hate pleasure, they dislike freedom of choice and they are antagonistic to business, precisely because business offers choice. Increasingly they have given up with persuasion and favour coercion through the law.
However, whilst there is little to like about the public health lobby, their relentless energy in begging for public cash to fund their ventures has to be admired. In a time of general austerity they have a remarkable record of achievement in successfully lobbying for more funding. The fact that their last efforts have failed seems not to worry anyone in funding their next efforts.
Cracks are visible in the glorious anti-smoking edifice however. The easy availability of e-cigarettes as a low harm alternative to conventional tobacco has divided the tobacco-haters. The anti-smoking lobby is also divided on the strategic question of the utility of coercion. Many of the more sensible public health experts are now worried by this approach. For instance, Clive Bates (Director of ASH from 1997 to 2003) has now become a critic of the movement, recently describing the anti-smoking lobby as: “off-the-scale mendacity and far worse than Big Tobacco 40 years ago. They are prohibitionists out-flanked by progress.”
With admirable zeal, ASH has come up with a new raft of measures, contained in a document cheerfully entitled: “smoking still kills”. As their next move, the anti-smoking lobby want the use of more pharmaceutical remedies to smoking (despite the known health risks of many of these drugs) and a much greater budget for anti-smoking adverts on TV and cinemas. They also want the tobacco industry to foot the bill for their failing agenda through a specific corporate tax. But realist retailers like myself know who will bear the cost for all of this politically fashionable crusading and finger-wagging; the smoker, the retailer and the taxpayer.
We shall see if ASH gets its way, the Public Health Minister is committed to publishing the next five year strategy in the coming few months; the last government strategy incidentally picked up and ran with every single recommendation of the previous ASH manifesto such is the closeness between this lobby group and civil servants in the Department of Health – the same civil servants who of course also sign off on ASH’s annual public grant.
Once they have destroyed tobacco, they will start on food and alcohol, and eventually every pleasure will be heavily taxed and carefully regulated. Right thinking people should reject this war on smoking which is at root anti-business, anti-pleasure and anti-liberty.