Wes Streeting’s suggestion that Labour might ban the sale and purchase of cigarettes in order to get the UK smoke-free by an arbitrary deadline does, if nothing else, mean that the goal of the anti-smoking lobby – oft-obfuscated, oft-denied – is now in full view.
It was never really just about protecting bystanders from second-hand smoke, or raising the price of tobacco to offset its costs to the NHS, or all the rest of it. There has never been a bedrock of respect for the right of adult citizens to indulge a vice. At least now the debate can be conducted on its real terms.
Whether or not it would be bad policy depends on one’s priorities. It would almost certainly help to drive down smoking rates to an extent, just as prohibition of other narcotics does. Friction is a powerful tool in the hands of the authoritarian; you don’t have to make something impossible to make it difficult.
Yet there would be the same costs as with other narcotics too. The black and grey markets in cigarettes already do a good trade, and more organised criminals would move into the space if competition from legal vendors were banned.
Smokers who made the jump might even come to appreciate the advantages such as low-cost, tax-free goods, home delivery, and the continued availability of menthols and other currently-prohibited products, all of which would make it easier for the committed to keep alight the torch of smoking culture. Once one has paid $11 for 200 beautifully-branded cigarettes, the aura of being mugged never leaves the experience of buying them over the counter in a shop.
Meanwhile, it would be for the state and society to shoulder the burdens created by the growth of the criminal trade and the attendant loss to the Exchequer of some £10 billion of revenue every year (and the rest of us to look with fresh eyes on those campaigns against sugar and alcohol currently trotting out the anti-tobacco crusade’s earlier hits).
But shoulder them we may well, for this has never really been a debate about soberly weighing different costs and benefits – not least because the costs are usually borne by people who seldom have much of a political voice anyway.
There are probably relatively few people in Westminster with direct experience of how our maximalist smoking ban, once stripped of sensible caveats such as exclusions for wet-led pubs, helped to shutter thousands of establishments, and the obvious impact that had on community life the areas worst affected; few of those normally concerned about progressive taxation seem to mind that sin taxes are the opposite.
Britain will never be entirely smoke-free, any more than it will be weed-free (although there policy is if anything going in the opposite direction), or cocaine-free, or MDMA-free. And once cigarettes are banned, Streeting et al will have no levers left to pull, save pouring more and more scarce police resources into combating an organised crime problem they created.
The tragedy of the puritan is that they will never actually be free of “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be having a good time”. For fun, especially lucrative fun, will always find a way. Thank goodness.