We should be ashamed of our failure to oppose the Smoking Ban

The recent Tobacco and Vapes Bill, that passed its first reading in the Commons with an overwhelming majority, is decidedly anti-liberal and anti-freedom; and I’m extremely upset that the party leadership decided not to take a stand on this. When I first joined the Liberal Democrats, one of the primary reasons was that I believed us to be the last remaining party in this country to be fundamentally pro-Freedom, and to hold that as a core and imperative value. It seems that this is slipping through our fingertips.

The bill aims to do a number of things – my particular contention is with the idea of banning smoking for life for those who are turning 15 this year – thus making them a ‘smoke-free’ generation. It’s action on vapes is a separate matter, that I won’t address here. There are so many issues with this action, for anyone who cares about individual liberty.

Firstly, to smoke is an individual choice. Over recent decades, the wealth of scientific evidence has concretely proven the overwhelmingly devastating health impacts of tobacco – and I would argue almost no one legitimately disagrees with the idea that those who smoke know that its harmful. However, steps have been taken – such as the limiting of advertising and the proliferation of health advice – that have resulted in smoking rates also dropping significantly. In essence, people who smoke know what they’re doing. Restrictions on smoking in indoor places have also had an impact on second-hand smoking, again contributing to the idea that those who smoke are only harming themselves.

So, I say, let them. It is not the duty of government to intervene in our private lives, nor to tell us what we can and can’t put in our bodies. When I speak to people my age, one of our most popular policies in recent years has been the legalisation of marijuana; because people recognise that individual choice matters, and people should be allowed to do what they want. I’m a boring human- I don’t drink, smoke or vape, nor have I ever touched a narcotic – but I would never dream of suggesting that my fellow adult citizen should not have the right to do so.

There’s also evidence to suggest that alcohol causes bodily harm, I don’t see an alcohol-free generation on the horizon. Skydiving kills people, driving cars kills people, even unhealthy food kills people – but we’re not banning them. In our lives, we make calculated choices about what harm is justifiable to us, for the pleasure gained, and that’s a free choice.

Another substantial issue is the idea of creating two classes of citizen. Depending on the year, and indeed day, of your birth, for the rest of your life you will have limited rights compared to your following citizen. With the exception of children (and some other cases, such as mental incapacity), whose rights are exercised by parents or guardians, people should remain equal under the law- that’s a core tenet of our democracy. Why is it that I can buy cigarettes, but my two-year-old cousin will never be able to? Why am I deserving of more rights than her?

This policy represents further anti-liberalism and a disgust for freedom for a government on its last legs, desperate to cling on to anything representing meaningful policy. Along with their introduction of protest limitations, it shows a thirst for soft authoritarianism that leaves a very bad taste. I’m furious that the party leadership has not shown more strength on this – to show the country that we remain the party of freedom. It’s sad that stronger opposition to an anti-freedom policy has come from backbench Tories than from the Liberal Democrat party.

So, coat your arguments in as many statistics as you want, or hide behind medical officers for all I care. The parliamentarians who voted for this bill cannot run from its blatant intrusion on our personal liberty, nor from the dangerous and downright immoral legal precedents they’ve set. History will be the judge.

* Zagham Farhan is President of the Oxford University Liberal Democrats.

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  • I might agree with you if smoking only affected the smoker, but it doesn’t..Smoking is estimated to cost the NHS £2.5 billion every year, equivalent to 2% of the health service’s budget

    As for……alcohol causes bodily harm, I don’t see an alcohol-free generation on the horizon. Skydiving kills people, driving cars kills people, even unhealthy food kills people – but we’re not banning them. In our lives, we make calculated choices about what harm is justifiable to us, for the pleasure gained, and that’s a free choice………

    Reverend Sydney Smith…”It is the greatest of all mistakes, to do nothing because you can only do little:…”


  • Nonconformistradical 18th Apr '24 - 10:54am

    I second expats.

    This is a case where exercising personal freedom clashes directly with other peoples’ right to breathe air free from tobacco smoke

  • Could Mr Farhan clarify where his exhilarating version of Liberalism differs from Anarchism ?

    In practical terms , for example, does he believe the legal requirement to drive on the left in the UK infringes his freedom of choice to drive on the right ?

  • Expats – please look at:


    Smokers paid 10 billion in tax, while the true cost was only 2.5 billion.

    Nonconformistradical – Where in the uk are you forced to breathe air with tobbacco smoke?

  • Given it has been scientifically known that smoking significantly increases the premature death rate since 1957, it is perhaps a little surprising that the tobacco industry still exists and is still highly profitable; this is a scandal that is orders of magnitude greater than the Post Office Horizon System.

    Remember, deal in say cannabis – an illegal drug with a low impact on premature deaths, and risk having your assets seized as “profits of crime”…

  • Jenny barnes 18th Apr '24 - 12:13pm

    Well, if we’re talking about the externalities of smoking, the £10 billion tax revenue leaves £8 billion to spend on other nice things after the NHS take their £2 billion. And smokers die earlier on average, so reducing their impact on geriatric care. And if £8 billion is not enough, put the tax up some more. I understand the cost of 20 cigs is £16 these days – serious money if one smoked 20/day as I did once upon a time.
    Prohibition of drugs does not work. The evidence is in.

  • Brandon Masih 18th Apr '24 - 12:21pm

    On the subject of ensuring that other people aren’t subject to breathing tobacco smoke… this is why we rightly have regulations on smoking areas and end of indoor areas in pubs. Outdoor smoking isn’t as nearly a harm given the smoke will dissipate, and even in more crowded places say bus stops where people may be more affected, the generational sales age slider isn’t going to directly have an effect on reducing those harms (our focus for public place clean air should ofc be taxing and reducing vehicle emissions)

  • Just checking expats logic here. He says it is right to ban an activity if participants in that activity cost the NHS more than average… and the example he gives is smoking with its “excess costs” of £2.5 billion. The specific example he gives might be wrong because smokers will on average die younger than others thereby reducing their burden on the NHS [to say nothing of pensions etc]. However if we allow him his principle then we can immediately identify a large range of other activities which expats would wish to see banned for example consuming more than 21 units of alcohol a week, eating more than 2,400 calories a day, watching TV for more than two hours at any one time etc, etc. As many of us have said before banning cigarette sales is the start of a very slippery slope. Much as I like the Lib Dem candidate for our constituency Ed Davey’s actions have given me serious doubts as to whether I can in good conscience vote Lib Dem at the forthcoming general election.

  • ……..Richard 18th Apr ’24 – 2:09pm….a large range of other activities.which expats would wish to see banned for example consuming more than 21 units of alcohol a week, eating more than 2,400 calories a day, watching TV for more than two hours at any one time etc, etc. As many of us have said before banning cigarette sales is the start of a very slippery slope……

    Richard, Thank you for that..I’m considering to changing my name to ‘Cromwell’ or even ‘Whitehouse’..
    However, I’m old enough to remember that despite claims, first made nearly a decade before, that wearing safety belts could significantly reduce injuries and fatalities in crashes, the consultation papers show that motoring organisations as well as Ministry of Transport bureaucrats were deeply concerned about making drivers and their passengers wear them, with civil liberties arguments weighing heavily. The government preferred to rely on Jimmy Savile’s television advert exhortation to “clunk, click every trip”.
    I also remember how , although now cinemas, pubs, workplaces and cigarette-scented restaurants are nothing more than a memory, in 2007 there was the same argument about personal liberty ..

    How many would like to return to the pre-belt, pre-ban days?

  • I wonder how the 85% of smokers who regret having started smoking but struggle to give up because of its addictive nature (Figures from Cancer Research UK at https://news.cancerresearchuk.org/2012/07/21/most-regret-ever-starting-smoking/) would feel about having their freedom to choose to smoke defended in the name of liberalism. Especially since, according to the same source, 77% of smokers took up smoking as teenagers, some as young as 13 – so many would have become unwittingly addicted before they even reached adulthood.

  • The reference to teenagers, some as young as 13, starting to smoke, need to be seen in context and there should also be a recognition of some important changes. I have some sympathy with someone who is a smoker and over 40 or so and felt dragged into smoking at a far too young age Until 2007 you could legally buy cigarettes at 16. Under age sales were also easier at many retailers. Cigarettes were cheaper (and much cheaper in the 1970s and 1980s) and right up until about 2000 there was significant tobacco advertising – seen by many children, let alone teenagers. BUT things have changed and as far as i can see tempting a teenager to start smoking is of a different magnitude than was the case 30 years ago. Advocates of the Bill being considered by Parliament should address the reality of today – not the environment and exploitative powers the tobacco had over children and young teenagers 30 years ago.

  • Martin Gray 18th Apr '24 - 7:00pm

    Adults are aware of the addictive nature of nicotine & are quite capable of managing their own risks in a free liberal society. What we don’t need is a nonsensical law that will be difficult to enforce the longer that ban is in place . What someone does in the privacy of their own home with a product that’s been around 400 years is an entirely matter for them – not the state.
    It comes across as elitist & illiberal.
    Some of our MPs seem to be devoid of independent thought & are just following on trend campus politics.
    Maybe they should watch an episode of Benidorm to see how working class folk smoke, drink, and enjoy themselves…
    I wrote that earlier and thought I’d copy it in before I spark up my favourite Embassy cigarette. Each and everyone I thoroughly enjoy & will continue to do so.
    This law is illogical, unenforceable, discriminatory, and illiberal….Shame on those that supported it ..

  • Katharine Pindar 18th Apr '24 - 7:09pm

    Martin Bennett. Your imaginative depiction of ‘abrogation of liberty’ being caused by a ‘neurophysiological addiction’ inflicted by ‘a form of enslavement’ lacks a prime cause, the identity of the abuser using this form of enslavement. I suggest that this is nonsense. It remains in my view plain that the measure is illiberal, and therefore I agree with the author that Liberals should oppose it. It is far from the first time and will not be the last time that I disagree with the stance of our leader, but he does not define the party, which is a democratic institution within which members are sovereign.

  • Tristan Ward 18th Apr '24 - 7:31pm

    While I regret that 5 MPs spurted the Tory and Labour parties in this for both political, practical and philosophical reasons, it’s worth remembering MPs were given a free vote.

  • The penny has dropped that a lot of people have been misquoting JS Mill for a long time I.e “Mill is clear that intervention to protect other people is justified” when he actually said that is the ONLY reason to intervene and turns out we want to intervene when it’s not to protect others so we don’t really believe in Mill at all!

  • @Marco: I don’t think it’s necessarily against JS Mill to be in favour of the Tobacco and Vapes Bill. After all, JS Mill also strongly argued for utilitarianism. Since experience seems to show that, on balance, freely allowing cigarette sales tends to cause net unhappiness (particularly, smokers regretting having started), you could argue that the legislation is perfectly in accord with his utilitarian beliefs, and is an example of a situation where his beliefs in individual liberty and in utilitarianism lead to opposite conclusions.

  • I think many here are too focused on the individual users and failing to see the effect this legislation will have on the drug dealers (aka the tobacco industry) in the UK.
    Currently, the uk industry has revenues of over £23bn per annum, globally it’s over £718bn and growing.

    Effectively the legislation is telling the industry, there is no new market for them in the UK, as a no point in the future will there be a time when there will be a new group of customers they can market and sell to.

    The unknown and thus challenge is determining the extent to which (illegal) drug dealers step in to the market space created. I wonder if the government are going to also reduce the personal import allowances, to restrict supplies to the informal market. Additionally, this will impact visitors to the UK…

  • I don’t understand why we as ap party don’t at least oppose the inclusion of (reusable) vapes in the ban.

    The evidence against vaping isn’t anywhere near as extensive as that against smoking, so can we honestly say at this point that vaping is harmful enough to warrant treating it the exactly same with an outright ban?

    Banning smoking but allowing vaping would at least direct people towards the less harmful option without denying them the ability to use nicotine outright.

    It also wouldn’t interfere souch with our cannabis policy since we could at least legalise vaping cannabis without looking hypocritical.

  • Peter Davies 19th Apr '24 - 7:24am

    As far as I can see, the current strategy is working. It is probably the only drug where current policy is working. Very few people are becoming adicted above the age where it is legal to buy nicotine. Part of that is down to price. We need to tax at a level just below that which makes illegal trafficing profitable and let’s not be ashamed of the government making money out of it. Raising money for services is a good thing. The main factor though is that it has become embarassing to be a smoker. We should be looking at why it is still cool for teenagers.

  • I don’t agree with banning things unless they harm others. So, yes banning smoking in all public places needs to happen.
    It seems obvious that the Tories are doing this because they are a useless government incapable of tackling the bigger issues.
    Most importantly it won’t work. It will fail just like the stupid war on drugs failed. There will be a lucrative black market. Tobacco and alcohol consumption should be regulated, not banned. All drugs should be decriminalised and regulated too.

  • Roland 18th Apr ’24 – 11:39pm:
    The unknown and thus challenge is determining the extent to which (illegal) drug dealers step in to the market space created.

    Having already stepped into a third of the market they’re well placed to increase their market share.

    Peter Davies 19th Apr ’24 – 7:24am:
    We need to tax at a level just below that which makes illegal trafficing profitable…

    Which would require a huge reduction in the rate of tax…

    ’80% of UK smokers have bought illicit tobacco in the past year’ [April 2024]:

    The study also found that nearly three-quarters of respondents have seen an illegal 20-pack of cigarettes priced between £3.00-£6.00, as opposed to the mean average RRP of £15.26 for a legally priced 20-pack of cigarettes, and that 35% of people buy ‘branded’ tobacco at least once a week, with one in five people only buying ‘branded’ cigarettes and Roll-Your-Own tobacco, even though all legal tobacco has been sold in plain packaging in the UK since 2016.

  • Peter Martin 19th Apr '24 - 12:27pm

    Jeff above makes a valid point. My own personal observations of where smokers acquire their products, currently, is in accordance with it.

    It’s one thing to pass laws, it’s quite another to ensure that they are enforced and all loopholes are closed.

    The enforcement of the Tobacco and Vapes Act, assuming it does become law will likely require measures that Lib Dems will not be at all happy with. I’d go further and say that these are required to ensure that even existing laws are adequately enforced.

    It’s far too easy for the tobacco smuggling gangs to make big money at the moment.

  • James Moore 19th Apr '24 - 3:44pm

    Very good article Zagham.- and completely right.

    When I was President of your club I remember reading Jo Grimond’s personal manifesto and his other later writing. He was often warning about how Liberalism was losing it’s distinctive focus on personal liberty and all too willing to embrace the state, regulatory bodies and more taxation as the solution to every problem. It is why the party now has such a weak identity today and even why many of it’s MPs have such a weak grasp of Liberalism.

  • Peter Hirst 19th Apr '24 - 4:04pm

    The thing is Zagham starting smoking is too often is not a free or informed choice. Most people start smoking at an early age when peer pressure, personal anxieties and reckless behaviour overwhelm the rational part of our brain. Once addicted it is a long and arduous road back. Personal choice needs to come from a place of understanding, free from outside pressures and a knowledge of how good decisions are made.

  • Nonconformistradical 19th Apr '24 - 5:08pm

    “Most people start smoking at an early age when peer pressure, personal anxieties and reckless behaviour overwhelm the rational part of our brain. ”

    Or maybe living in a house full of smokers…..

  • @Martin Bennett: Thanks for the clarification about JS Mill. Interesting. As it happens I’m in the process of reading him – read most of On Liberty (but not the final chapter you mention) and skimmed bits of Utilitarianism and Considerations on Representative Government. It’s fascinating reading (although hard work to get through the prosaic 19th century style of writing) and he does argue very logically. But although he seems to me remarkably perceptive about human nature, it also seems clear that he wrote On Liberty without today’s understanding of things like addiction, peer pressure, and the spread of fake news, and I do wonder whether/how that might modify some of his conclusions if he was writing today.

  • James Moore 19th Apr '24 - 6:07pm

    I’d recommend people read Isaiah Berlin’s famous lecture ‘Two concepts of Liberty’ alongside Mill. Berlin argues that the ‘harm principle’ and ‘positive liberty’ is often used as a cloak to take away individual freedom and undermine Liberal societies. The smoking ban is an excellent example of why Berlin was concerned about this issue.

  • @ Simon R “it also seems clear that he wrote On Liberty without today’s understanding of things like addiction, peer pressure, and the spread of fake news”.

    Sorry to disagree, Simon, but plenty of addiction and peer pressure in J.S. Mill’s time. The alcohol issue in working class circles just one. Also, take a look at Wordsworth and his pals, the Prince of Wales visiting Opium dens regularly and our very W. E. Gladstone’s sister, Helen. –

    “Gender, Age, and Authority: The Case of Anne, William Ewart Gladstone… Oxford Academic https://academic.oup.com › book › “There is no doubt that somewhere along the way, Helen Gladstone became addicted to opium and probably alcohol”.

    Plenty of peer pressure not to mention the Band of Hope, the Churches & Chapels….. and J.B. Priestley makes an interesting case in his play, “An Inspector Calls”.

  • Nom de Plume 19th Apr '24 - 7:59pm

    Smoking tobacco is an evil that needs to be removed. Personal choice does not come into it. Well done to those brave enough to vote for the Bill.

  • Andrew Tampion 20th Apr '24 - 8:17am

    I agree with this article and the commenters who oppose this appalling ill thought out and illiberal piece of legislation. To widen the discusion two quotes from JRR Tolkien , an unapologetic smoker.
    First from Book 3 Chapter X The Voice of Saruman. Pippin asks “And if Sauron does not conquer? What will you do to him[Saruman is “him”]? Gandalf replies. ” I? Nothing! I will do nothing to him. I do not desire for mastery.” It seems to me that too mant “liberals” desire for mastery over others.
    Second from Book 1 Chapter II The Shadow of the Past. Frodo offers Gandalf the Ring, in part because Gandalf is “wise and powerful”. Gandalf reply is too long to quote in full, although I encoourage those who do not recall it to read it, the relevant part (for me) is “”Do not tempt me! For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself. Yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good. Do not tempt me!” I suggest that the advocates of this law have been tempted by the desire to do good into seeking to impose their will on others.

  • Making it illegal, will make smoking a fag slightly more interesting for those born after 2009. That frisson of infringing the law. Smokers should be in favour of anything that makes their chosen habit more vice-like.

    There are so many other more exciting and unconscionable things to get up to, which also do not destroy your health.

    Let’s get behind this measure to make smoking more exciting and ever less common.

  • Imagine smoking dies out: will humanity have lost anything of any value?

  • I think too of the several people close to me who died premature deaths due to smoking. Just two examples:

    – my beloved uncle. A brilliant mathematician and heavy smoker. Died at 52 – massive heart attack – in a long lived family. Total waste of life.

    – my first friend in Spain Carlos. A very fit outdoor man. A gardener. A heavy smoker. Died at 47. Throat cancer

    What a pitiful waste!

  • Yes it’s true that JS Mill does talk about peer pressure in the context of it acting as a constraint on liberty and therefore is undesirable, but he seems to me he doesn’t draw the connection that we’d now understand today that an action taken purely as the result of peer pressure (such as starting to smoke as a teenager) is arguably not a really free choice. Once you recognise that, it becomes questionable whether the principles of liberty should apply to such actions in the way they should to something that is more genuinely a free and informed choice by the individual.

    The problem is that, although I would guess we all largely support the principle that people should be free as far as practical to build their own lives how they wish, the question of what is and isn’t a free choice is rather more complex and nuanced than people in the 19th century perhaps tended to think of it (or indeed, how we like to think of it in our own lives).

  • There are two classes of children at the moment – those whose parents smoke – often in doors, at home, and those whose parents do not. Why would we want to allow the tobacco industry to create addicts who worsen their own lives, and those of their children, just so that they can make money? What next, the “freedom” to drive cars without airbags and seatbelts, like in the old days?

  • Chris Lewcock 21st Apr '24 - 10:24am

    Seems a facile and false parallel is being drawn between imposing seatbelts and banning cigarettes. Requiring use of a seat belt doesn’t ban driving, doesn’t remove your choice whether or not to drive.

  • Jenny Barnes 22nd Apr '24 - 2:09pm

    There used to be a ban on dramas etc on TV & film showing people smoking. When did that stop? I really notice the implicit advertising.

    Also, pet peeve, people having a conversation while apparently driving (ofc they are not really) and regularly looking at their interlocutor rather than keeping their eyes on the road. If they must do it, could we have a few accidents caused by not paying due care and attention. You look at the road when driving, not at your passenger. Sigh.

  • Chris Lewcock 21st Apr ’24 – 10:24am…
    Seems a facile and false parallel is being drawn between imposing seatbelts and banning cigarettes. Requiring use of a seat belt doesn’t ban driving…

    You can get 3 points for not wearing a seatbelt…Do it four times and you’ll be banned

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 22nd Apr '24 - 5:40pm

    @Tim Leunig: I get what you are saying about airbags and seatbelts except the law in this case applies to everyone. We all have to wear seatbelts whatever our age. The difference about this law is that it creates two classes of adults and you could have two people, born a day apart, one who can legally buy cigarettes, one who cannot. That to me is absurd.

    I think that it is possible to use liberal principles to arrive at either conclusion so I wouldn’t condemn those MPs who voted in favour of it even though I personally disagree with them.

  • This is a good discussion. It seems from Martin and Simon’s comments that I’ve oversimplified Mill. Criminalising sale not purchase is consistent with Mill perhaps. However James is right to refer to Isaiah Berlin as the concept of positive liberty could be taken to extreme lengths unless checked by negative liberty.

  • I do actually agree that at one level, it is very bad that the law creates two classes of adults. Ordinarily, a law that discriminates on the basis of age in this way would be unacceptable. But I think this case, it’s pragmatically the least bad solution if we want to outlaw selling cigarettes to people who thereby become addicted to them, while also recognising that people above a certain age might already have legally become addicted and so it would be unfair to remove their ability to buy cigarettes. In real life sometimes things often a lot messier than we might wish based on our principles.

  • Caron Lindsay 22nd Apr ’24 – 5:40pm….

    There are umpteen laws that are age based..For example Anyone just under 18yo in december 2019 has been disenfranchised for almost 5 years..I was unable to vote in the 1964 GE because I was a couple of months short of my 21st birthday..

    In the cause of ‘freedom’ this is not ‘the hill I’d choose to die on’ AND when Liz Truss, Boris Johnson and Suella Braverman (who flew back from Brussels) strongly oppose it together with the Sun, Mail, Express and Telegraph’s umpteen article against the bill, I KNOW I’m on the side of the angels..

  • I agree with expats, there are a lot of age based laws, likewise there are date of birth based laws, such as the changes in retirement age.

    Yes it is going to be difficult to police and rigorously enforce, however, if it results in a 90% or better reduction in new tobacco addicts then I would regard it as a success.

  • Jason Connor 24th Apr '24 - 4:20pm

    The vast majority of admissions to hospital for respiratory conditions are caused by smoking. Thankfully we are no longer are compelled to breath in cigarette smoke in indoor spaces, that was one piece of legislation Labour got right. As passive smoking is inflicted on children and others with long term medical conditions in certain environments I am delighted that the smoking ban passed its first reading with an overwhelming majority. Only the libertarians liberals and conservatives seem to oppose it portraying freedom as the opportunity to harm others by their own selfish habits. They are the antithesis of social liberals.

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