Simon Clark is director of the smokers’ group Forest.
Last week, at the Conservative conference in Birmingham, Forest co-hosted a fringe event at a local nightclub. Five hundred guests attended the party that was called ‘Eat, Drink, Smoke, Vape’. Forest events have been a feature of the Conservative fringe for over a decade. Few who were present at our party in Bournemouth in 2006 have forgotten the mock police raid that saw the principal speaker ‘arrested’ having been ‘charged’ with “inciting people to enjoy themselves”. As he was led off in handcuffs, smoking a large cigar, 400 people sang ‘Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life’.
The reason such events are popular is because they meet a simple human need for pleasure. Likewise, despite the well-known health risks, millions of adults enjoy smoking and don’t want to quit, not even for a less harmful alternative like vaping. Millions more (including non-smokers like myself) value the concept of choice and personal responsibility. Despite this successive governments have used legislation to coerce people to quit a legal consumer product.
Labour’s smoking ban was followed by graphic health warnings and a ban on tobacco vending machines. Then came the tobacco display ban, a policy the Conservatives opposed in opposition but implemented as soon as they were in power. It’s also due to the Conservative-led Coalition government that standardised packaging of tobacco is being introduced in the UK, the first country in Europe to adopt this Orwellian policy. ConservativeHome columnist Iain Dale, who spoke at ‘Eat, Smoke, Drink, Vape’, echoed the thoughts of many when he said, “I don’t know how any politician can support excessive regulations on what we consume and call themselves a Conservative.”
There hasn’t been a single independent review of the impact of any of these policies yet the Department of Health is currently being lobbied to go even further. The taxpayer-funded anti-smoking group ASH wants to ban smoking in all private vehicles regardless of whether children are present, and if the Royal Society for Public Health gets its way smoking will be prohibited outside pubs and bars to force smokers to quit or switch to e-cigarettes. Anti-smoking campaigners also want to restrict the number and location of tobacco retailers, regardless of the loss of jobs or the inconvenience it will cause existing consumers. Meanwhile there are increasing moves to ban smoking in outdoor areas even though there is no evidence that smoking in the open air is a threat to anyone else’s health.
Groups like ASH argue that anti-smoking policies enjoy the backing of the general public. In fact they invariably exaggerate or misrepresent the level of support, especially the desire for further tobacco control measures. A report published today by Forest reveals that a clear majority of the public believe that measures to tackle smoking have gone too far or gone far enough. Based on a series of polls conducted by Populus for Forest, the report also found that:
The public overwhelmingly believe the Government has more pressing priorities than tackling smoking – investing in new doctors and nurses, for example.
There is no appetite for additional tax rises on tobacco products – a huge majority believe that tobacco duty is already about right, too high or far too high.
Measures to restrict smoking in outdoor public places such as parks and beaches have no popular or scientific legitimacy and would be hard to police.
Following a dramatic fall in the number of people using NHS stop smoking services a significant majority of the public believe there should be a review of how these services are funded.
A majority of the public believe the government’s tobacco control policies should be independently reviewed and should not be driven by taxpayer-funded lobby groups.
Significantly, almost a decade after smoking was banned in pubs and clubs in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and ten years since smoking was prohibited in Scotland’s pubs and bars, a majority of the public believe that pubs and private members’ clubs, including working men’s clubs, should be allowed to provide a well-ventilated designated smoking room to accommodate smokers.
Not only is there relatively little public support for further anti-smoking policies, the public has a clear desire for a common sense approach to policy making. Regulation should not be made at the behest of taxpayer-funded lobby groups but on the basis of credible, independent evidence. Regulations should be based on fairness not dogma. Punishing rather than educating the consumer is not acceptable. Nor should legislation be introduced without proper consideration of the inevitable unintended consequences.
In her first speech as Prime Minister Theresa May said she wanted to make Britain “a country that works for everyone”. In Birmingham last week she added that the Conservatives will use government to “restore fairness” in Britain. In the coming months, as the government’s new smoking strategy is finalised, ministers should reflect on what that truly means. A significant number of adults smoke, and enjoy smoking, and their contribution to society is substantial (£12 billion a year in tobacco taxation alone, far outweighing the alleged cost of treating smoking-related diseases). Further discrimination against smokers would be the clearest sign that this new One Nation Conservative government is not as inclusive as it purports to be.
If the Prime Minister really wants to stand up for millions of ordinary people who are sick and tired of being patronised by politicians and the professional classes, she must stop her government introducing further policies that will discriminate against the UK’s seven million smokers. Enough is enough. It’s time to stop this spiteful war on ordinary people who choose to smoke.