Health Minister Andrew Lansley says he hopes the time will come when tobacco companies have no business in the UK. This is an extraordinary statement from a government minister. I understand his health concerns, but to put it in context, can you imagine if he had said that alcoholic beverage companies should have no business in the UK, because of health issues, or that automotive companies should have no business because of traffic accidents and pollution?
We’re talking about a major industry employing some 5000 people directly in the UK. It’s estimated that altogether a total of 80,000 jobs depend on the industry (it would be more but for the punitive taxation that promotes a thriving black market). On of the major tobacco companies, Imperial, is on my patch at Nottingham.
I remember a meeting with trade union representatives at Imperial while we were debating the EU’s Tobacco Directive in Strasbourg. The directive sought to ban higher-strength cigarettes. Not just sales and consumption in the EU, but production for export as well. Clearly the production of those cigarettes would simply move to Bangladesh and Bangkok and Buenos Aires — yet another EU decision exporting jobs and investment and industry out of the EU altogether.
I remember po-faced Labour MEPs at the meeting insisting that if we believed these cigarettes to be dangerous we had a moral duty to ban exports of them. (Bizarrely, I found myself being cheered by trade unionists while Labour MEPs were booed!) More empty moral gestures. There’s a parallel here with our climate policies today. We seek to give moral leadership, oblivious of the fact that no one is following, so we’re damaging European economies while achieving nothing for the environment. And we’re driving jobs and investment out of the EU altogether. Plus ça change, as they say.
This story underlines the deeply illiberal nature of this Coalition government. It is simply not the business of government to seek to close businesses down, nor to stop people doing dangerous things if they choose to do so. Some 25% of my constituents choose to smoke, despite knowing the risks. I wish they wouldn’t. I hate smoking, and I wish no one did it. But I recognise their right to do so, and I don’t recognise any right of government to stop them. Advise, inform, yes. Even hector and preach, if you must. But the persecution of smokers has gone too far for a free country.
We have the display ban in shops. Now we have the debate on plain packaging, and we know where that will lead. I object on practical grounds — plain packs will be a field day for counterfeiters. But I object far more strongly on grounds of liberty. In the US, branding on packaging would be protected by the First Amendment. The proposed measure is simply a denial of free speech.
Maybe Lansley should spend a little less time on health fascism, and a little more time thinking about how to sell his health-care reforms to a sceptical public.