Daniel Rossall-Valentine is Deputy Chairman of Sevenoaks Conservative Association. He writes in a personal capacity.
Today the people of Britain have lost one of their freedoms.
The attractively named “European Union Revised Tobacco Products Directive (2014/40/EU)” has, from yesterday, banned the sale and manufacture of all cigarettes with a “characterising flavour”. As menthol is typically the most common type of flavoured cigarette, the directive has been dubbed the “menthol ban”.
This ban won’t affect me personally. I have no connection with the tobacco industry, I’ve never smoked a menthol cigarette, I’ve never purchased a pack of cigarettes. Yet this ban makes me uncomfortable.
I’m not a libertarian and I don’t think that people have an inalienable right to smoke tobacco. I believe that a nation has the moral right to restrict certain personal freedoms of its members for the wider good, where it can be demonstrated that the exercise of a particular freedom is injurious to others.
In every case, however, the introduction of a new regulation needs to go through a rigorous process of evidence gathering, evidence presentation, and consultation, and should conclude with a parliamentary vote. The hazard otherwise is that we end up with regulation that serves one particular lobby, and injures others disproportionately.
This is the situation we have reached with tobacco. A steady stream of tobacco regulation flows into our local retailers from the EU, the UN, the British Government, and from devolved governments, as regulatory authorities around the world compete with each other to be the first to start the next battle in the long war against the smoker.
Some of the restrictions on tobacco introduced since the landmark “Smoking and Health” report was published in 1962 are justifiable. Nobody wants to see the return of tobacco adverts. But some of the restrictions reveal a dark side to tobacco regulation, and demonstrate that public health regulation is not in itself well regulated.
The regulations frequently have no concern for economic harm or effectiveness. They are openly experimental, but if they fail they are never reversed. Tobacco regulation provides many examples of poor regulation. The ban on packs of ten was utterly without merit. “Plain packaging” (which meant inserting deliberately nauseating images and exaggerated health warnings onto cigarette packets) was deeply patronising, and an unprecedented infringement of commercial freedoms to brand and package a legal product.
The clumsy and hurried implementation of the “smoking ban” meant that its benefits were outweighed by the massive damage that it did to an already fragile pub sector. The height of insanity was reached with the bizarre regulations that forced retailers to hide “plain” cigarette packets from view, just in case a glimpse of a “plain” cigarette packet should induce a shopper to desire cigarettes.
In the process of trying to speed up the natural decline of smoking, we have allowed unprecedented attacks on commercial and personal freedoms, created an accidental black market and set a precedent for bad, clumsy and undemocratic regulation.
The ban on menthol is in the same coercive and patronising vein. The ban has been put into law without debate, consultation or justification. The argument that the change will protect children is clearly bogus as menthol has no attraction for children, and the threadbare arguments advanced are simply window dressing for a further attack on the pleasures of working people; which our bourgeois regulators find so distasteful.
The public health lobby has been defined by the war on smoking. It is their major success. However, a success for the public health lobbyists and spin-doctors has come at a hefty price for the nation.
Like it or not, tobacco underpins much of the wealth we enjoy in the UK. Tobacco stocks support our pensions, tobacco taxes help fund our public sector, and tobacco sales support our convenience shops. For this reason we should regulate tobacco with great care. But this care is nowhere in sight.
The war on smoking has succeeded in its immediate mission to make life hard for smokers, but failed in its grand objective of making the nation healthier. The long war against smokers developed a strong public health subculture in which aggressive, coercive, and uncompromising methods were preferred over persuasive approaches. Convinced that smokers were stupid (why else would they be smoking?), educational methods were considered inferior to legislation; hence the flood of legislation that has done so much collateral damage to manufacturing and retail.
This is the legacy of public health today; limited knowledge of persuasion, an impatience with education, disregard for economic harm, and a cynical attitude to consultation with industry.
If we want to improve the health of the nation without doing great damage to personal liberty and our economy, then our approach to public health needs to change. We need a culture of public health which is more intelligent and less missionary, more open, more persuasive, more self-critical, able to see the limits of its own proposals.
Most regulation fails; that’s a fact of life, and as economies become more complex the success rate of regulation falls further. Until the UK develops a process of deregulation which is just as aggressive as our approach to regulation, British businesses and consumers will be saddled with a growing historic infrastructure of failed regulation.
As we slowly but surely emerge from the European Union, lets commit ourselves to reviewing our entire stockpile of regulation and ditching any regulation that cannot demonstrate that it has produced much greater benefit then harm. Let’s commit whole sittings of Parliament to reviewing existing regulations and laws instead of inventing new ones.
Let’s also commit to a better model of regulation going forward; regulation which is consultative, consensual, and more sensitive to the pressures that businesses face.
Otherwise, just as we have regulated the tobacco manufacturing industry out of existence, we face handing over many other industries to foreign competitors. Let’s learn from the mistakes we have made in one industry, before we lose others.