When Cameron and his team contemplate their policy shift in
response to UKIP’s popularity, they ought to consider not just the message, but
how it is delivered. The media loves to portray Farage with pint and cigarette
in hand – indeed, the pint has become something of a motif in recent weeks,
whilst a recent BBC report featured a lingering shot of a slowly burning
cigarette. Presumably the left-wing media assumes that this will in some way
degrade Farage in the eyes of the public. ‘Look at this lout, he drinks and
smokes! How could anyone expect him to run a country?!’ In fact, it is his ‘man
of the people’ persona that really drove people to UKIP in the polling booths at the local elections, not any one policy on immigration or Europe.
So how to counter? Whilst Obama is occasionally snapped
cigarette in hand, taking a fag break round the back of the White House to
contemplate the trickier problems of state (and somehow makes it look cool), it
is unlikely that Cameron could pull off the same look. He has spent too long
trying to appeal to the organic tofu-eating, husky-hugging Notting Hill set to
sport smoker chic successfully.
Intriguingly, the answer could lie in his heavy handed
promise to renegotiate the European treaties. There is much scepticism from all
sides that any such renegotiation could be managed; the Continentals are too
wedded to a federal Europe to contemplate letting little old Britain pick ‘n’
mix its way through the treaties. This may well be true, but Europe does still
have a Parliament, and a Council, and therefore the means for negotiation on a
case by case basis.
Whilst not part of a treaty, the Tobacco Products Directive,
which is currently being reworked, offers ample opportunities for Cameron’s
team. Last broached ten years ago, the current directive is deemed out of date
thanks to the arrival of new non-tobacco smoking products such as electronic cigarettes.
Consequently the Commission has decided to revisit this area in the name of
public health, yet the current proposals fly in the face of scientific guidance.
The most controversial and damaging part of the Commission’s
draft concerns the EU’s approach to reducing harmful impacts of smoking. The
Commission’s proposals effectively crush all products that provide smokers with
less risky choices, killing the electronic cigarette market, providing no
serious legal framework for new, less harmful tobacco products, and maintaining
the EU-wide ban on the Swedish tobacco product known as snus.
The arguments against plain packaging and in favour of
allowing electronic cigarettes are well known by now, so let me instead discuss
snus. The ban on snus was imposed in 1992 following the controversy about a
different smokeless tobacco product known as Skoal Bandits and justified on
health grounds. But as Sweden managed to negotiate an opt-out from the ban when
it joined the EU, we have a good basis for comparing actual health outcomes.
Sweden has similar overall levels of tobacco consumption to the rest of the EU,
but has managed to achieve the lowest rates of smoking of any member state
along with the lowest rates of smoking-related death in the developed world.
How has it managed to do this? Countless studies point to the same conclusion.
Since the 1980s, large numbers of Swedes – particularly Swedish men – have
managed to quit smoking by using snus as a substitute.
The European Commission’s own scientific advisers
acknowledge this. They also point to evidence showing that snus is at least 90%
less harmful than smoking, does not cause lung cancer and is not a risk factor
in oral cancer. At the same time, they dismiss the idea that snus acts as a
gateway to smoking. In short, the availability of a tobacco product with a far
lower risk profile than cigarettes has enabled many Swedish smokers to switch,
leading to a significant net improvement in health.
Current UK policy on snus favours the status quo, as it did
when the last Labour government was in. If the Conservatives in Europe (both in
the Parliament and the Council) can steer a reversal on the ban on snus through
the European Parliament, this would allow the Cameron administration to make a
stronger argument that reasoned negotiation with our European brethren is
Moreover, there is a strong case to make that tobacco
products and smokers’ health should be removed from Brussels altogether under
the principle of subsidiarity as defined under Article 5 of the Treaty on
European Union. If the Conservatives could successfully persuade the Brussels
machine to drop legislation at European level on tobacco entirely, they would
be able to make a much stronger case back home that a change in the balance of
power at EU level is possible.
Finally, these measures specifically would allow
Cameron to paint himself in a more libertarian, smoker-friendly light,
something more of a man of the people, and to distance himself from the Notting
Hill set. Win-win-win all round for Cameron and snus.