SUE REID: I’ve tried – and dismally failed – to quit smoking for years. But I still think Rishi Sunak’s ban on cigarette sales is the nanny state running out of control
On his Sunday morning jogs in leafy Wimbledon, my thirty-something son Harry tells me he can smell cannabis wafting from under the front doors of middle-class homes.
I’m not surprised: our city centres increasingly reek of the drug.
In Glasgow, city burghers are set to open a ‘drugs-consumption’ room where addicts can inject heroin and other deadly poisons with no recriminations. Proponents insist this curious plan will soon be copied in England and Wales.
At my local pharmacy, iridescent nicotine vape sticks, resembling lollipops and full of strange chemicals, are lined up at child’s eye-level alongside the protein bars.
Which makes me wonder why Rishi Sunak has chosen to act so mercilessly against cigarettes this week. Already we smokers are ostracised from polite society, banished outside, relentlessly criticised and taxed to the hilt.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has chosen to act so mercilessly against cigarettes this week. Already we smokers are ostracised from polite society, banished outside, relentlessly criticised and taxed to the hilt. Mr Sunak is pictured speaking at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester on Monday
And yet a flagship policy of the Prime Minister’s speech at the Tory party conference was the announcement that children today will be criminalised for the rest of their lives if they ever try to buy a packet, as the legal age of smoking is ratcheted up every year.
The rules would mean anyone aged 14 or younger today will never be allowed to smoke. In ten years’ time — if this policy goes through on a promised free vote that Labour is expected to support — shops will have to quiz anyone wanting cigarettes who is under 35, instead of the 25-year-old age check today used to weed out child buyers.
It raises the prospect eventually of a 51-year-old being able to buy cigarettes, but a 50-year-old being banned from doing so — and therefore, surely, a system of government ID cards to enforce the law. Court challenges will be sure to come before it reaches the statute book.
If ever a nanny-state policy were destined to rile core Conservative voters, this is surely it. And I know better than most. I took up smoking the minute I escaped my Lake District boarding school aged 16.
At technical college in Lytham St Anne’s, Lancashire, I was surrounded by chain-smoking students, mainly boys. It didn’t take me long to join them.
Incredible as it sounds now, my former nanny gave my twin brother and me a packet of ten Piccadilly each as presents for our 17th birthdays. My well-to-do parents (who also sparked up when they poured their evening G&Ts) didn’t turn a hair.
Every smoker can remember the first time they took a puff. After a few coughing fits, we were hooked.
And don’t get me wrong: my lifelong habit is something I eternally regret. In all my years of smoking, I’ve never managed to quit for more than two or three days at a time. I always tell my teenage nephew and niece never to try that first cigarette, because overcoming a future addiction will take immense willpower. I admire anyone who has managed it.
But what I regret even more than my own failure to quit tobacco is the relentless march of this Government-knows-best attitude — this mission-creep of meddling in our lives.
The rules would mean anyone aged 14 or younger today will never be allowed to smoke (Stock Image)
And to make it worse, of course, it’s happening under a Tory administration, supposedly the party of individual freedom.
Yesterday, Tory hereditary peer and former failed Parliamentary candidate Lord Bethell welcomed Sunak’s new policy on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
‘There isn’t a Taliban rebellion on this at all,’ was how he put it, adding: ‘I hope it’ll be a platform from which we can now tackle ultra-processed food and also there’s work to be done on gambling and on drinking and the other harms of mental health.’
In other words, they’re just getting started.
To my mind, Bethell and the other statist, bossy Tories are much too optimistic about how effective this ban will be.
Yes, some people will no doubt be spared a lifelong habit — and lucky them. But men and women have smoked tobacco for hundreds of years, and it is idealistic in the extreme to think they will stop because of a single government policy.
At conference this week, Mr Sunak was anxious to promote himself as a politician who respected consumer choice. No more wars on motorists, no more pie-in-the-sky net zero promises: here was a back-to-basics PM in tune with ordinary people.
So it beggars belief that this policy has been borrowed from Jacinda Ardern, the ultra-woke and ‘zero-Covid’ authoritarian ex-premier of New Zealand, who earlier this year left office saying she ‘didn’t have enough in the tank’ to continue.
The Kiwis’ plans, if anything, are even more draconian than Sunak’s.
Not only have they barred anyone born on or after January 1, 2009, from ever buying a packet of fags — on pain of swingeing fines — they hope the entire country will be ‘smoke-free’ by 2025. The government in Wellington is removing nearly all the nicotine from cigarettes and slashing the number of shops that can sell them from 6,000 to just 600 nationwide.
It beggars belief that this policy has been borrowed from Jacinda Ardern, the ultra-woke and ‘zero-Covid’ authoritarian ex-premier of New Zealand, who earlier this year left office saying she ‘didn’t have enough in the tank’ to continue
New Zealand’s geographical isolation theoretically makes black markets harder to establish — but well-connected Britain, as the experience of rationing during World War II showed us, is a very different matter.
Most of the young smokers I know (and 207,000 still take it up every year, according to the charity Action on Smoking and Health), buy their cigarettes illegally from the internet, where the cost can be as little as £4 a packet.
Prohibition has never ended happily. Ban something and people, particularly children and teenagers, tend to want it all the more.
When America outlawed alcohol in 1919, the market shifted from licensed sellers to gangsters like Al Capone. New York state, where 75 per cent of the income was from alcohol taxes, nearly went bankrupt. Theatres, restaurants, entertainment venues, breweries and distilleries all closed, leading to a huge hike in joblessness. The prison population soared.
Prohibitionists had proclaimed that banning the demon drink would solve all the country’s ills. But just 13 years after passing the 18th Amendment, the U.S. abruptly overturned it. A powerful lesson for the future.
I remember the day in 2007 when Tony Blair’s indoor smoking ban became law. It hit the working class of our northern towns harshly. The bingo clubs of Lancashire and Yorkshire, where ladies spent their afternoons puffing away hoping to win a bob or two, closed down. Customers resorted to playing TV bingo in their front rooms — surrounded by full ashtrays.
On a rainy day in Rotherham that year, outside a working men’s club, I met gentlemen who remembered the war and had gone down the mines. They were huddled outside holding umbrellas in one hand and struggling with a fag in the other. They all told me that the smoking ban meant they would never vote Labour again.
Rishi Sunak may have his heart in the right place. No one wants to see a child light up a cigarette or an adult blow smoke into someone’s face.
Perhaps the Prime Minister has the wrong target. Smoking costs the NHS £2.6 billion a year — although smokers contribute £10 billion in annual tax revenue to the Exchequer. Alcohol abuse also costs us all £3.5 billion, while obesity comes in at almost £6 billion — a figure set to rise to £9.7 billion annually by 2050 (File Photo)
Yet perhaps the Prime Minister has the wrong target. Smoking costs the NHS £2.6 billion a year — although smokers contribute £10 billion in annual tax revenue to the Exchequer. Alcohol abuse also costs us all £3.5 billion, while obesity comes in at almost £6 billion — a figure set to rise to £9.7 billion annually by 2050.
Despite these numbers, Mr Sunak has claimed that smoking is ‘unequivocally’ the worst preventable cause of death, disability and illness in our society. ‘Everyone recognises this measure to be the single biggest intervention in public health in a generation,’ he boasted.
I would beg to differ. That accolade must go to locking down a terrified nation during the pandemic, and the refusal to allow us to hug Granny at Christmas in the name of public health.
A proper Conservative approach is to entrust us to look after our own affairs — and keep government out of ordinary people’s business.
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