Jason Reed is the founder of Young Voices UK and a policy fellow with the Consumer Choice Center.
In February of last year, Ansaf Azhar, the director of public health for Oxfordshire county council, unveiled the “Oxfordshire Tobacco Control Strategy”. Azhar had decided that the proportion of people living in Oxfordshire who smoke – 12 per cent – was too high and needed to be slashed. When fewer than five per cent of people smoke, an area can be considered “smoke free”. Azhar made it his mission to make Oxfordshire England’s first smoke-free county.
The Oxfordshire Tobacco Control Strategy was signed off by the county council in principle in May last year. You would be forgiven for thinking that since then, the director of public health at a local authority might have had more pressing matters to attend to than smoking. But Azhar has apparently continued his crusade against cigarettes undeterred.
He has now horrified right-thinking people up and down the country by declaring the council’s intention to ban smoking for outdoor hospitality. Although the plan currently lacks an implementation timetable or any other firm commitment, the fact that it is part of the plan at all says some very worrying things about the direction we’re heading in.
In the new world order of the nanny state, everything can be neatly categorised into good and bad. Everything is black and white – it’s all either vital or morally reprehensible. Once it is accepted that an activity is objectively “bad”, who could possibly oppose its being banned?
Of course, the real world, outside the offices of “directors of public health”, is rather different. It is not all black and white. There are lots of shades of grey. But nuance and freedom of choice aren’t all that fashionable these days.
Unfortunately for smokers, cigarettes have been deemed a social evil. Their existence is so objectively awful that the reasoning behind drastic measures to wipe them from the face of the earth doesn’t even need justifying. The result is that ludicrous policy proposals like the Oxfordshire Tobacco Control Strategy can be signed off and made reality with startlingly little scrutiny from those we elect to represent us and safeguard our civil liberties.
If you can bear it, I recommend a cursory read of the offending document, for novelty value if nothing else. It talks not of blanket bans, sweeping restrictions and ill-thought-out curbs on our freedoms, but instead of “creating smoke free environments”, as though we are being given a gift of something new to enjoy and ought to be grateful.
Most troubling is the way the document’s authors seem to be in complete denial that they are wielding the tools of the state at all. They write: “The interventions required to successfully de-normalise smoking and achieve a smoke free Oxfordshire may be considered as “nanny statist” or an assault on personal choice by some people. The whole system approach to make smoking less visible is not banning the choice of people who choose to smoke. It aims to create smoke free environments in more places in our communities, protecting the free choice of the nine out of ten residents of Oxfordshire who choose not to smoke.”
Oh, you thought our harsh new restrictions on what you can and can’t do in public were an assault on your freedom, did you? Don’t worry – if you look carefully, you’ll find that bans on common activities actually give you more freedom, not less.
The counter-factual logic behind the introduction of new regulations in the name of “public health” knows no bounds. If the council actually wanted to make Oxfordshire healthier, it would see that the answer is not to put yet more unnecessary strain on the hospitality industry at this impossibly difficult time.
Instead, the council should throw all its efforts behind supporting vaping as an alternative to smoking. More than half of Britain’s e-cigarette users – around 1.7 million people – are former smokers. Those nine out of ten Oxfordshire residents who don’t smoke won’t have to worry about any health risks from second-hand e-cigarette vapour. Even Public Health England concedes – with a great deal of reluctance – that vaping is 95 per cent less harmful than smoking.
And yet, in the 24-page Oxfordshire Tobacco Control Strategy, there is not a single mention of vaping, the most effective instrument for tobacco control we have. That begs the question: what do the public health authorities actually want, if it is not to make people healthier? When they flagrantly eschew proven harm reduction tools in favour of gratuitous centralised policy interventions, it becomes impossible to sympathise with their motives.
This problem stretches much further than Oxfordshire. In fact, the county is only a few years ahead of national public health outcomes. Its strategy mimics that of Public Health England, which is working towards Matt Hancock’s target of making England smoke-free by 2030.
The attack on effective harm reduction methods and the swing towards a new age of nanny statism comes from the very top. Last week, the World Health Organisation honoured the health minister of India for his work on “tobacco control” which notably includes banning vaping. A new APPG, chaired by Mark Pawsey, the Conservative MP, seeks to bring to a halt the WHO’s pernicious influence in areas like this. That task becomes more difficult with each passing day.