Rishi Sunak’s speech in favour of gradually banning tobacco was full of terrible reasoning, half-truths and illiberal beliefs. Instead of accepting the paternalism at the root of the ban requires severely restricting individual freedom in all sorts of ways, e.g., by banning cigarettes today and rationing junk food, he took the coward’s way out and invented a whole load of spurious reasons as to why his gradual ban is required and no more. The sly nature of his proposal is sacrificing individual freedom at the altar of popularity – a total disgrace which he should not be allowed to get away with. The following deconstructs Sunak’s speech and shows it up for what it really is: Ridiculous.
In his speech Sunak claimed his proposal ‘is not a values judgement on people who smoke’, i.e., he is not saying their habit is either good or bad for them. Yet in the very same paragraph he also claimed ‘there is no safe level of smoking’, which, assuming he thinks unsafe activities are bad, means, he must believe those who smoke today are doing something which is bad for them. And this is evidently ‘a values judgement’. Now what is the basis of saying ‘there is no safe level of smoking’? I suspect he forms this judgement on the basis all smoking results in reduced expected longevity due to it causing cancer, heart disease and strokes. Under this reasoning though there is no safe level of crossing the road to see friends, rock climbing or motorcycling because they all reduce expected longevity due to the accidents associated with them as well. Are all these to be banned too?
No. At this point I suspect the personal benefits of the three activities will be invoked to ensure they are allowed. Thus, it must be conceded an activity being less safe does not necessarily make it bad, because, as we all recognise, valuable activities can be pleasurable yet not totally safe. Undoubtedly, smoking, for many of its consumers, falls into this category because users value the pleasure of smoking more than the expected costs of poor health. Hence, as crossing the road to see friends, rock climbing and motorcycling should be allowed, analogously, smoking should be allowed too. The lesser safety of an activity is no warrant to ban it. Again: Safety is not all important!
Nonetheless, let us accept the idea all smoking is bad, and, hence, should be banned. If the warrant for stopping soon to be smokers is they will ‘have their lives cut short as a result’ and they will become ‘addicted and wish they had never taken up the habit in the first place’, this warrants banning all smoking today too. Banning smoking for everyone cannot be dismissed as not being practically possible either as Sunak is clear banning existing users works: ‘When we raised the smoking age to 18 [from 16], smoking prevalence dropped by 30 per cent in that age group’. So why not ban cigarettes for everyone today – saving thousands of lives? For the simple reason it would be massively unpopular, hence, Sunak has taken the coward’s way out and simply fudged his proposal by failing to carry out his argument for it to its logical conclusion, i.e., total prohibition today.
Due to this fudged proposal for a gradual ban Sunak has invoked tripe ideas to create an aura of consistency to it. According to him it would not ‘be fair to take way the rights of anyone to smoke who currently does so’. Why though? It cannot be because having this right is in their interests, while it is not in the interest of tomorrow’s smokers, because Sunak does not believe it is. Perhaps it is because individuals should have their own protected sphere of activity within which no one may intrude. This makes sense given Sunak is talking about ‘rights’, i.e., the enforceable claims of individuals against others, in this case, to individual freedom. Yet if adults today have these rights, why do not the adults of tomorrow as well? Is there nature distinct from ours? No. If the smokers of today have the right to smoke, so do the smokers of tomorrow have the right to smoke too. Again, expediency has trumped reason.
After outlining his reasons for the ban Sunak claimed what ‘ultimately swayed me is none of us, not even those who smoke, want our children to grow up to be smokers’. This is sentimental drivel inserted into a speech to create applause from an audience which is going to clap at almost anything which protects children. Let’s try and make some sense of Sunak’s statement though. I think he is appealing to the idea parents have a responsibility to look after the interests of their children, which, by similar reasoning, means parents collectively have a responsibility to look after the interests of their collective children. Parents though do not have the right to stop their adult children from acting imprudently. If I live by myself and act imprudently by overeating, getting a tattoo and getting to work late, my mum and dad have no right to stop me from doing so. Analogously, neither do parents collectively, via the state, have a right to stop their collective adult children from acting imprudently either.
The whole proposal is sly in ensuring no adult with an interest in smoking is going to campaign against it because it is specifically designed not to affect them. People should appreciate the wise words of Thomas Sowell: ‘Freedom is unlikely to be lost all at once and openly. It is far more likely to be eroded away bit by bit, amid glittering promises and expressions of noble ideals.’ Liberals warned safety belts would lead to the prohibition on smoking, the public should not be too surprised if their alcohol and fatty food is next.
What is worse is Sunak admits in other contexts consumers do have a right to choose. In delaying the ban on buy-one-get-one-free-deals for junk food, he said: ‘I firmly believe in people’s right to choose’. Why though? If smoking killing 64,000 people every year is warrant to ban it, obesity killing 30,000 people every year should warrant restrictions on overeating too, surely? In being pressed on this question by Nick Robinson, Sunak responded by saying there are two differences between cigarettes and junk food. First, is there is no safe level of smoking. As we have seen this is irrelevant. Moreover, why not just ban the level of overeating which is unsafe then? The obese lose an average of twelve years of life, by putting in place compulsory rationing for them these years could be saved. If this intervention is not implemented there is at least no reason to believe smoking before the age of forty should be prohibited either because quitting before this age reduces your chance of premature death by ninety percent. Sunak cannot have his cake and eat it too.
Second, he claims tobacco is addictive and this makes it distinct from cakes and crisps. If regrettable addiction though is warrant to gradually ban smoking, why does it not warrant an immediate ban too. Oh yes, I remember, because this proposal would lose him an election. Moreover, if addiction is the real issue, why not ban vapes and coffee as well? Ultimately, addiction is a matter of degree, sugar is addictive, as is nicotine too, though to a greater extent. If people really want to give up smoking, they can, as demonstrated by the fact 63 per cent of all smokers have given up. Hence, just as the failure of an obese individual to resist the urge of chocolate cake at the desert trolley is no reason to ban the desert trolley altogether, neither, by parity of reasoning, is the failure of the smoker to resist the urge for another cigarette reason to ban cigarettes altogether too.
The simple reason as to why Sunak is willing to grant a right to choose to the obese but not to smokers is because hitting smokers is very popular, while hitting the obese is not. It’s nothing but opportunism devoid of any commitment to principle, let alone individual freedom. As if all this tripe reasoning was not enough though, Sunak insisted upon trotting out a set of half-truths concerning the costs of smoking to society to boot. He claimed: ‘Smoking places huge pressures on the NHS and costs our country £17 billion a year.’ The issue with this £17bn figure is it includes lost productivity to the tune of £12bn, which is actually borne by smokers themselves, either in lower wages, or, to a greater extent, in them simply being dead and not earning anything at all. This £12bn is not a cost to society as it was never entitled to the income of smokers to begin with, hence, just as when people retire early, we do not claim they cost society, neither do smokers who die early cost society either.
Really smoking does not cost society anything in the round. This is because smokers die so much earlier meaning they do not create pension and healthcare costs for the state, saving it about £10bn annually, plus, smokers pay about another £10bn in taxes each year. With their cost to the NHS, extinguishing fires and littering expenses coming to only about £5bn per annum, their net benefit to society is about £15bn. If anything, the NHS may be under more pressure after the ban due to people, who would have otherwise died early of smoking, clogging up wards in their dying days.
In sum, if Sunak were consistent, his arguments would support rationing junk food and banning all smoking now. The reason why he fails to follow through on them is their true immorality would be exposed to the public and their unpopularity would sink his electoral ambitions. Sunak is either illiberal to his core, or, perhaps worse, ready to sacrifice individual freedom at the altar of winning an election. Either way, this grave wrong committed against the young and unborn of Britain must be opposed with the utmost vigour. Not a moment must be lost in the fight for freedom!