OPINION - If we banned smoking, could we really call ourselves a free society?

(PA) (PA Wire)
(PA) (PA Wire)

Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, says a future Labour government will consider measures to incrementally ban smoking. Labour is watching New Zealand, which legislated to criminalise every potential smoker born after 2009. That generation will never legally smoke.

I understand Labour’s desire to do something about the NHS, whose unravelling is, quite rightly, a national obsession. Smoking is dangerous, and it should be discouraged. But banning it is illiberal, unfair, and it won’t work. It will criminalise poverty — poor people smoke more — and it will pass tax revenue from the Exchequer, which can offer mitigation and support with quitting, to criminal gangs, who don’t. Tax revenue on cigarettes is £10 billion a year. Smoking costs the NHS £2.5 billion a year. Whatever smokers do or don’t do, they pay for themselves, and more besides.

Streeting is embodying a moral panic about tobacco. Drug panics, which are detailed in Carl Erik Fisher’s recent book The Urge, are common in history, and they have a reliable sequence: epidemic, panic, repression. They are usually class- or ethnicity-based, and sometimes both.

The most common cause of a drug epidemic is “social wounding”: when communities are fractured or in distress, the epidemic comes. Native Americans suffered a drug epidemic when their lands were stolen, and London suffered a drug epidemic — gin! — during urbanisation, when people left country for town. In the US today, white people without college degrees are facing an opioid crisis.

New Zealand’s anti-smoking legislation is, we are told, primarily to benefit Māori, who smoke heavily. But here smoking is a symptom of alienation, not a cause. If people don’t want to be in good health it’s worth asking why. Whatever happens, Māori won’t get any land back.

Still, smokers are easy meat: it’s effortless to attack working-class people and their choices, while ignoring the dangers of other stimulants with broader appeal or more monied users.

Alcohol kills only a seventh of the number that smoking kills in Britain, it is true, but more than half of domestic violence incidents are triggered by alcohol. Then there is sugar, laying waste to public health across the world. It’s easier to count the British people who aren’t overweight than the ones who are: 40 per cent of women, and 30 per cent of men. No one is seriously suggesting banning alcohol or sugar, and they shouldn’t.

The main issue, of course, is liberty. Dangerous sports can be pleasurable — caving, diving, skiing — and self-harm is a choice that society cannot legislate against, and still call itself free. We cannot create a world in which smoking thrives and then try to legislate for the symptom alone: that’s cruel. I don’t doubt that a ban on tobacco will make non-smokers feel better. When the state comes for their pleasures, they won’t.

Deadly mix of drugs and fame

Lisa Marie Presley, pictured, Elvis’s only child, is dead at 54, and it seems likely that drug addiction ruined her health, as it ruined the health of her son, Benjamin Keough, who died in 2020 at the age of 27.

It’s a truism that nothing is harder to recover from than fame, and no one was more famous than Elvis Presley and his family at the end of the 20th century. When she was a baby, a jet was named after her — the Lisa Marie — and if you want the rest of the story, listen to Viva Las Vegas: it’s all there. Drug addiction thrives in families, and in dream worlds, and fame and money are the most adamantine of dream worlds. They don’t bear unravelling because if such gilded creatures are unhappy, what do the rest of us have?

I think of W H Auden’s line “But who can live for long in a euphoric dream?” The answer, of course, is no one.