The British government is considering plans to ban branding from cigarettes, which would instead be sold in plain packaging. This attempt to reduce the appeal of smoking would at the same time take more responsibilities away from parents and communities. There is no evidence that these sorts of measures will have any effect on the number of British children that will begin smoking, and plenty of evidence that it will stimulate the growth in black market tobacco while hurting small business owners during times of economic hardship.
The only thing more worrying about the economic illiteracy this consultation has exposed is the level to which this sort of nannying is expected, and even encouraged in the UK. There is a depressing refrain in debates on smoking that while you or I might be responsible enough to not smoke ourselves, others lack the will power, the knowledge, or the means to prevent themselves or their children from smoking. The debate in the UK also inevitably comes back to the external costs smoking places on non-smokers through the NHS.
The fact is that even those pushing for these sorts of bans inadvertently show that these measures are not needed to reduce the rates of smoking. ASH (Action on Smoking and Health), a government-funded group that somehow manages to keep an independent charity classification, has data on its own website that shows that rates of smoking were dropping long before indoor smoking bans or restrictions on advertising.
As a non-smoker myself I have been victim to smoking bans here and in the UK. While enjoying a pint in both London and DC pubs, I have been often times been left at the bar to guard coats, ipods, bags, drinks, and other items, while my friends get their nicotine fix. I would much rather be exposed to the exaggerated dangers of second hand smoke than spend my time as a de-facto sentinel for other people’s crap. But alas, the District of Columbia and the British government have made that lifestyle choice for me.
I cannot help but think that two changes in policy would go a long way towards preventing children from smoking:
1) Enforce the law. As novel as this might sound many campaigners seem to forget that there is a minimum age for purchasing cigarettes that is not strongly enough enforced. If retailers faced tougher sanctions for selling cigarettes to children, there would be an added incentive for them to be more vigilant.
2) Change the healthcare system so that people are responsible for their own health. By all means smoke like a chimney and drink like a fish, but be prepared to pay for it. A healthcare system like Britain’s NHS does nothing to discourage people who make bad lifestyle choices. As well as binge drinkers and chain smokers, we could also add firewalkers, bungee jumpers, and those skateboarders who dominate hours of youtube to the list of people who should pay out of pocket for their dangerous habits.
One has to wonder were all of this ends. Alcohol and fast food seems so far exempt from the sort of treatment tobacco gets, but for how long is yet to be seen.
The most depressing part of all of these campaigns is the assumed authority people grant to the state. Not enough Britons seem to care that the government is trying to act as the surrogate parent to millions of people. The government’s remit used to be limited to the preservation of liberty, defense, and the rule of law. The last few decades have seen government extend its responsibilities to so many parts of our lives that should be the remit of the family and community, and more importantly, the individual. If the government decides who is going to be a doctor, where you will seek treatment, and how much you will pay for medicine, it makes sense that they should decide what you can put in your body. It is a shame how accepted this wisdom is.
Thankfully, there are those in the UK fighting against the advertising ban campaign. I wish groups like the Hand Off Our Packs campaign all the best. The UK needs more like them. Too often people forget that localism, limited government, and the free market do not only create wealth, they empower institutions that foster and encourage goals that governments waste billions of dollars trying to achieve.