Plain talking about cigarettes
Opinion: As long as people have addictive personalities, people will continue to smoke
‘Evidence from Australia does suggest that the introduction of plain packets – decorated only with health warnings – may have further reduced tobacco consumption.’ Photograph: Getty Images
The BBC sitcom Yes Minister gave the world a great many useful aphorisms. Best of the bunch was, perhaps, Sir Humphrey Appleby’s ironic summary of the government’s random response to an impending crisis. “We must do something. This is something. Therefore we must do this.”
It is a little bit unfair to associate that phrase with the Minister for Health’s latest anti-smoking initiative, but some desperation does appear to be setting in.
Last week, the Cabinet gave its approval for draft laws compelling tobacco companies to use plain packaging. Most forms of advertising have now been prohibited. It is illegal to smoke in public places. The fags are hidden from view at the point of sale. Packets are decorated with pictures of gruesome tumours and distended inner organs.
The State has surely communicated the fact that it finds smoking dangerous and anti-social. Anyone who hasn’t yet got that message is, surely, never going to take it in.
The tobacco companies will campaign against the move, but, should it become universally adopted, this further prohibition on marketing may end up saving them money. It has always been rumoured that, already happy with their vast share of the market, Tampax actually lobbied against the introduction of television advertising for tampons.
Smoke and mirrorsLet us not spread too much confusion. The gradual edging of cigarette smoking into the shadows has been one of the great successes for public health officials over the last half century. It is genuinely shocking, when viewing television footage from a few decades ago, to discover gaspers being swallowed in the most unlikely places. They used to smoke on University Challenge, for Pete’s sake. Can it really have been less than 20 years since we were allowed to puff in aeroplanes?
We can debate the effect the smoking ban has had on pubs – and it seems to have been significant – but those establishments are now, for smokers and non-smokers alike, certainly less suffocating places in which to sit. The message has got through. The habit is now largely a private one. The Flintstones will never again get to advertise Winston’s proprietary coffin nails (this actually happened).
Over the past few years, however, the urge to appear Tough on Cigs (Tough on the Causes of Cigs) has taken on a slightly frantic quality. The banning of display at point of sale doesn’t do anything to dissuade smokers, but it does cause irritating delays as shop assistants grapple with unnecessarily complicated dispensers.
Evidence from Australia does suggest that the introduction of plain packets – decorated only with health warnings – may have further reduced tobacco consumption. But authorities both there and here are soon going to run out of “something to do”. As long as people have addictive personalities, people will continue to smoke.
We are heading unstoppably towards a largely unasked question. No government wants to have the conversation about banning tobacco. Any such debate will reveal the hypocrisy that sits at the core of our drug laws. If a tobacco ban were to be introduced, strong arguments could be made for prohibiting alcohol and any number of addictive over-the-counter medications. We know how that worked out for the Americans in the 1920s.
If the Government is forced to argue for an invisible line of safety – separating drugs that involve an “acceptable” degree of risk from the “bad” ones – then it will find itself dragged into even greater semantic convolutions.
By most reckonings, cannabis would slip beneath the line that permits the sale of booze and fags. Yet legalisation of marijuana is never seriously entertained in the upper circles of government. As the unseemly back-slapping following the banning of “legal highs” demonstrated, no party ever lost votes by appearing to be “tough on drugs”.
So, unable to shift in either direction, the State distracts from the hypocrisy by tinkering at the corners of existing legislation. The officials deserve some sympathy. It would take a brave person to ban tobacco. It would take a braver person still to loosen laws on hitherto prohibited substances.
Hang on. Here’s something. Let’s do that instead.