Tom W Huxley is an artist, writer and Conservative Party activist in Birmingham.
A new milestone is being set for those who turn eighteen in Britain. In addition to being able to drink alcohol, freely marry their girlfriends, and legitimately vote in general elections, they will now also – after having waited their entire childhood for the privilege – be entitled to sit in the back seat of the car while their parents smoke a cigarette.
No matter how much I might resent the choices of others, I don’t see how it is any of my business to impede their right to make them. And yet when it comes to cigarettes, society does this all the time. The ban on smoking in public places. Duties, otherwise known as ‘sin taxes’. Stringent regulations on packaging and advertising. All of these measures work to drive down the affordability of what was once a traditional working class pastime.
While busy professionals might consider it a vice, many of those who use them believe that such ‘escapes’ are what gets them through the day. Meanwhile, Britain’s lower classes have to decide between getting through the day without those escapes, or making do without anything else. I get irked when I see people who should know better condemning those on the poverty line for ‘spending all their money on fags and booze’. When we’ve deliberately engineered the market to make these items as expensive as we have, is it any wonder that it takes up such a high proportion of the incomes of the lowest paid?
There is plenty of evidence that these moves are proving effective on public health in the long term – particularly in that today’s generation of youngsters are less interested in drink and drugs than any before it (just 20 per cent of pupils admit to having tried smoking, compared to 60 per cent only two decades before). But such a shift of attitudes does not easily infiltrate the older smokers, who often remain stuck in their ways, preferring their wisdom of the ages over the prevailing opinions of the day. And so what was intended as a movement to benefit public health becomes a blight on the finances of those least equipped to manage them.
In the face of impoverished smokers being driven to destitution or down the slippery slope of using payday lenders, how should our politicians act? There can surely be only negative equity in advocating a policy specifically designed to make it easier for poor people to smoke. Treatment programmes can only go so far, especially if those concerned don’t feel they have a problem. Might helping the hardest-hit to better manage their money be the path of least resistance?
With an eye on the recession’s effect on people’s standard of living, the coalition set up the Money Advice Service in 2011. Its accomplishments in the intervening two and a half years have been questionable to say the least. Two reports in December 2013 blasted the service for failing to carry out its mission. Both the National Audit Office and the Treasury Select Committee found serious flaws in a strategy that primarily relies on participants browsing its web site. There’s plenty of useful advice and guidance to be found there – but what use is that when many in the target base lack access to the internet and some of them can’t even read?
Despite these scathing reports detailing the shambolic nature of the Money Advice Service, alarmingly little noise has been made about it by our politicians. Perhaps they have calculated that the nature of its funding, coming as it does from a levy on the financial services industry rather than general taxation, makes it a can of worms better left unopened. Yet after Labour has made so much capital out of its ‘cost of living crisis’ slogan, it remains a mystery why politicians of all stripes have shown minimal interest in something precisely tasked with easing such a crisis.
Fining those who smoke while driving their children home from school will become, for those who flout the law, just another additional cost to the habit of smoking. Such costs are easily absorbed by the wealthy, which could make the practice of smoking in the family car a preserve of the better-off (I suppose it’s a less dangerous way for the middle-aged to challenge the system than drink-driving), but hit the worst-off hard, and the Westminster set seems blind to this. Even Boris Johnson – the man who once complained that the similarly well-intentioned congestion charge had only filled the roads of London with “posher cars” – has come out in support of this policy.
When MPs have devoted so much of their time to making Britain a safe haven from smokers, one has to wonder why they care so little about the unintended consequences of their policies on those who choose to take no heed of them. It might be flippant to suggest they have more interest in protecting the long term health of their middle-class children than they do the short-term wealth of the aging lower classes, but perhaps there is a ring of truth to this. While members gallivant around the Palace of Westminster, one of the few workplaces legally exempt from the smoking ban, they should give a thought to their less fortunate fellow smokers.