A smoking ban isn’t “unconservative” – but it is illiberal

Oxford University Liberal Democrats graduate and worst prime minister ever, Liz Truss, raised eyebrows last week by describing the government’s Tobacco and Vapes Bill as “unconservative”. This is rather odd, because the Conservative instinct has always been to ban the things they don’t like. They didn’t like the idea that children might find out that gay people exist, so they banned teachers from talking about them. They didn’t like that people in Scotland might be able to self-identify as trans, so they banned the Scottish government from allowing it. And, most pertinent to what I am writing about now, they don’t like (most) recreational substances, so for the past several decades they’ve wedded themselves to the disastrous so-called War on Drugs.

Conservatives have a very shallow understanding of what freedom is, and when a conservative starts talking about freedom, alarm bells should start ringing. What these rebel Tories mean by freedom is the freedom for people like them to continue doing the things that people like them have traditionally done, such as hunting foxes, making racist jokes, or in this particular case, smoking tobacco. It generally does not include things that people who are not like them want to do, such as protesting peacefully, being transgender, or smoking cannabis. Unfortunately for them, Rishi Sunak has realised that he’s only got a few months left in Downing Street to scrape together some sort of meagre legacy, and so now Truss and her friends are experiencing the cognitive dissonance that comes from a conservative government approaching smoking in a conservative way.

So no, Liz, our esteemed former comrade, a smoking ban is not un-conservative. Banning a health risk and deploying our overstretched police in a futile forever-war against it is actually a very conservative thing to do (and also a very Labour thing to do, but that’s neither here nor there). Conservatives have never understood true freedom; that is the liberal domain. Which is why-…. Wait, what do you mean, the Lib Dems voted for this?!

Let’s backtrack a bit. I was raised with a pretty simple message: drugs are bad and I shouldn’t do them. I’ve still never done them. However, when I was seventeen, I discovered that some of my friends had smoked cannabis. The idea that they could be treated as criminals for this disturbed me, and it was a big moment in my teenage journey towards embracing liberalism. I joined the Liberal Democrats a few months later, and I’ve enthusiastically supported our position on cannabis ever since. Friends in the party have been campaigning for legalisation for far longer than I have.

To be very clear, the failure of the parliamentary party to oppose this smoking ban has possibly fatally undermined our campaign on cannabis. Watching the leadership tying itself in knots trying to explain how these positions somehow aren’t incompatible by means of weapons-grade centrist nuance was embarrassing.

Twenty years ago, smoking was a serious public health risk. Since then, we’ve banned smoking in the workplace and in other indoor public places. Health warnings on packaging and better education have ensured that smoking is no longer cool. Options for people who want to quit have never been more plentiful. All of these were liberal steps that reduced harm. But now, we’re going to impose an arbitrary system of age discrimination and in so doing create a new black market. History has conclusively proven that prohibition does not work and almost always makes problems worse, but again we’re going to ban something and hope that it goes away, and in doing so we meet the popular definition of insanity.

When I joined this party, it was under the assumption that I would be helping to elect MPs who subscribed to the axioms of liberal thought, the harm principle being chief amongst them. Now I find myself seeking as consolation the fact that the majority of our MPs abstained rather than voting in favour. We can and must do better. We know that harm reduction is never achieved through prohibition. There’s still third reading on this bill – rather than taking a position that Conference never voted for, will our MPs take this opportunity to look at this bill with liberal principles in mind? I only ask because the idea of Liz Truss, who now openly cavorts with American fascists, taking a more liberal position on an issue than the Liberal Democrats does not compute in my mind. I really hope I’m not the fool here.

* Adam Belcher is a council candidate in Leeds and a member of English Council.

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  • Good article and spot on.

  • Martin Gray 25th Apr '24 - 1:34pm

    Excellent Adam ….. Unworkable, unenforceable, and illiberal…..

  • Tristan Ward 25th Apr '24 - 1:45pm

    I too was very disappointed that some MPs supported the Conservative policy on this, and especially that none opposed it, but it is worth saying that it was a free vite for the party.

  • This really needs to be debated at conference, we’ve forced the leadership into adopting policies they don’t want in the past, we can do it again!
    And even if we aren’t prepared to go that far we could at least adopt a policy of allowing vaping and other less harmful tobacco products.

  • @ David LLG “we could at least adopt a policy of allowing vaping” Why and without any age limits ?

    You also say, “we’ve forced the leadership into adopting policies they don’t want in the past”. Such as ? The only one I can recall was to do with student fees.

    Whether you like it or not, it’s much more complicated than that. You need to think through the constitutional relationship between a few hundred self selecting party members who can afford the time and cost of attending a party conference and Members of Parliament elected by many thousands of electors. There are more worthy things you could challenge, e.g. the welfare cuts and the luke-warm attitude to membership of the EU, post Brexit.

  • Neil Hickman 25th Apr '24 - 3:38pm

    I smoked for a few years when I was young and stupid.
    In my 70s, I have an (admittedly mild) diagnosis of COPD, the condition which killed one of my grandfathers; I can’t help wondering if there’s a connection. So I applaud the aim of this policy.
    And when the Government comes up with something that isn’t about putting money in their supporters’ pockets or about scorching the earth to make life difficult for the next Government, it almost feels ungracious to object.
    But Adam is absolutely right about this proposal. It won’t work, any more than Prohibition did in the USA. It’s completely impractical – are we really going to have 50 year olds able to buy something and 49-year olds not? And, which ought to have been the clincher for us, it’s illiberal. Can our esteemed Parliamentarians please get their act together.

  • ………….Twenty years ago, smoking was a serious public health risk. Since then, we’ve banned smoking in the workplace and in other indoor public places. Health warnings on packaging and better education have ensured that smoking is no longer cool. Options for people who want to quit have never been more plentiful. All of these were liberal steps that reduced harm……….

    All of these were liberal steps that reduced harm???? Whereas another this step for reducing harm is illiberal..

    “Forcing private companies, in a free society, to put a logo on their product asking people NOT to buy it is somehow liberal”…Your logic escapes me

  • Steve Trevethan 25th Apr '24 - 7:20pm

    Might a “sunset clause” make this bill more liberal as it could result in a law, or absence of a law, based on practical experience?

    Is there a rumour that the Conservative government is going to follow the passing of the “Ruanda” bill, with a bill stating that the Earth is the centre of our Universe?

  • I’m so glad so many want to see the ban on tobacco sales opposed in the name of individual freedom, as I am assessing the reintroduction of the 1920s energy drink RadiThor (Radium dissolved in water). It has many of the benefits associated with tobacco smoking, just without the odours; like tobacco, long term consumption will result in a greatly increased risk of premature death.

    I’m sure with the size of marketing and political donation budgets the tobacco industry can put together (remember the UK tobacco industry is over £23bn pa), there will be a queue of people convinced of the virtues of this product. To the point that the package could carry a warning that it could kill them, yet they would still buy and consume it.

    I am sure everyone can see the absurdity of the above, yet still believe in peoples “right” to smoke. Also what is obvious, tobacco is a legal industry legally selling a product proven to kill its users even when used in moderation.

    A sensible sunset/review clause for this bill would be 2074 when there would be 50 years of data.

  • Chris Lewcock 26th Apr '24 - 8:35am

    If it comes to a vote I think we can be sure that our MPs will vigorously abstain.

  • Martin says: “Questions about an arbitrary age cut off are a red herring since I do not see that the restrictions would have to be officiously policed.” Well, that raises a big issue. What is the point of the proposed legislation if it is not enforced?

  • The obvious reply to @john hall is: Has anyone considered how unlikely it is that the current legislation will still be around exactly as voted this month, in 70-ish years time? The law on buying cigarettes is after all evolving pretty rapidly.

    Yes it would be absurd for an 83-year-old to be prevented from buying cigarettes while an 84-year-old can. If my maths is right, that will happen in 2092 if the new law is never changed in the meantime. But since we can be very confident that the situation on smoking will have changed beyond recognition by the year 2092, and there will doubtless have been numerous changes in the law between now and then, that’s hardly something worth worrying about today.

  • The objective of the policy is to try to reduce the number of people who start smoking. Yes, there’s a libertarian argument against the legislation. Should governments legislate in this area? It’s not a liberal argument, though. Tobacco smoking is not only anti-social in the way it affects the atmosphere around those who smoke, it is also anti-social because of the additional costs smokers can impose on society through health and welfare costs.

    The question is whether the legislation will be effective. All it is doing is placing a psychological barrier to smoking for those currently under 15 – there will never be a point when they will be able to legally buy a cigarette. Will that make the forbidden fruit more attractive? Possibly for some. Or will it be something that they will never want to do, because the legislation will help them manage their expectations?

  • David Evans 26th Apr '24 - 1:44pm

    The point John Hall makes is very valid, but has much wider implications than just the logic of a smoking ban. Likewise Simon R’s response is sensible and true in itself, but does not fully acknowledge the precedent it establishes.

    The worrying fact with the legislation is that it has established a view (almost a precedent) that it is acceptable for parliament to legally deny some people the right to ever be able to do something, while others are allowed to do so until the day they die. That is a very bad idea.

    I’m sure we can all think of extreme examples where that would be unthinkable in any sort of democracy but there are so many situations where I could see a smooth talking politician making the same case for alcohol, ultra processed foods and then moving the line into areas like motor bikes, non-electric cars or meat.

    After that who knows?

    The fact is laws can be absurd, and laws can be changed, but if they undermine certain principles or unwritten rules, they can change the entire legal direction of a society now even if they are subsequently abolished.

  • Nom de Plume 26th Apr '24 - 3:20pm

    Smoking tobacco is a public health risk. It brings no benefits to society or the individual. It is a dangerous drug and should be regulated as such. A very liberal argument.

  • @Martin Bennett:
    “I expect restrictions to be on sale rather than on consumption”

    “ The Tobacco and Vapes Bill would make it an offence to sell tobacco products to anyone born after 1 January 2009”

    [source: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/mps-to-vote-on-landmark-bill-to-create-smokefree-generation ]

    Sounds like a restriction on sale and not on consumption….

  • People need to be prevented from behaving stupidly. Hence the compulsory wearing of seat belts in cars, wearing of crash helmets on bikes, not using mobile phones while driving, etcetera.

  • Alex Hosking 30th Apr '24 - 11:22pm

    The biggest problem with this law is the assumption it will work, but also the fact that it gives people different rights, not based on race, sexuality or gender, but by being born before or after an arbitrary date.

    I’d add it’s an oversimplification and strawman implying that the UK government “didn’t like that people in Scotland might be able to self-identify as trans, so they banned the Scottish government from allowing it.”

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