Theresa May was a prohibitionist all along

The former PM wants a ‘smoke-free’ England to be part of her legacy.

Christopher Snowdon

Topics Politics UK

It took Theresa May to resign as prime minister for us to discover what lies behind that inscrutable mask. For three years, political pundits wondered what she really believes in. In the dying days of her administration, we found out – and it is not pretty.

In recent weeks, May has put forward a string of policies designed to tie the hands of her successors and secure some sort of ‘legacy’. Some of them, such as the Net Zero carbon target and the creation of an ‘Office for Tackling Injustices’, are expensive gestures. Others, such as a tax on milkshakes and a ban on young people driving after dark, reveal two of Theresa May’s biggest flaws: casual authoritarianism and a penchant for simplistic solutions. It is a nasty combination.

According to the Financial Times, she wanted to announce new taxes on food as her last act as prime minister. It is hard to imagine a grubbier epitaph. If this was her domestic agenda, be thankful that Brexit consumed so much of her time in office.

May’s penchant for arbitrary targets and kneejerk illiberalism emerged again this week with a Green Paper which announced that the government is ‘setting an ambition to go “smoke-free” in England by 2030’. This will come as a surprise to those who remember England going ‘smoke-free’ in July 2007, when smoking was banned in every building open to the public. But the meaning of ‘smoke-free’ has undergone a significant change. It now means no smoking, anywhere, ever. It means, in effect, prohibition.

How the ratchet has turned. Anti-smoking campaigners have used various arguments over the years, most of them spurious, but usually having the appearance of addressing a market failure in a way that is not wholly inconsistent with a liberal democracy. Advertising tricks people into smoking and so it must be banned, they said. Once advertising was banned, they portrayed tobacco counters and cigarette packs as a form of advertising and banned them, too. Bar staff were being killed by secondhand smoke, they said, and so smoking in pubs must be banned. Anyone could see that their real aim was to make it harder for people to smoke, but at least they paid lip service to John Stuart Mill’s harm principle.

Children were often invoked. Colourful packaging lures children towards a life of addiction, they said. Taxes need to rise to keep cigarettes out of the hands of children. Smoking needs to be banned outdoors in case children started to see it as normal. Think of the children, think of the children – won’t somebody think of the children?

Few of these arguments were ever sincerely deployed and they can be discarded entirely now that we are in the final phase. This week’s announcement is not about stopping children smoking. It is about stopping everybody smoking. You could be smoking a fag in the middle of a field on your own during a gale and it would still be intolerable to the Department of Health. Under the Conservatives, there will be no more smoking.

The government gives no economic or ethical justification for stamping out over the next 10-and-a-half years a risky but pleasurable activity enjoyed by 14 per cent of the population. It doesn’t bother with the usual tepid assurances about consenting adults having the right to smoke. How could it? The government doesn’t think anybody should smoke, and in the dying hours of Theresa May’s premiership it is jolly well going to say so.

The government is entitled to its view, even if it is patently not shared by those who like smoking. In a free society, disliking something is not sufficient reason for banning it. Contemporary Britain is not a free society.

How does the state intend to stop people smoking? The details are vague and May has handed the problem over to her successor. (‘Further proposals for moving towards a smoke-free 2030 will be set out at a later date.’) There is talk of a levy on tobacco manufacturers, but this would amount to nothing more than another small hike in the price of cigarettes. Smokers have coped with many such tax rises in the past, not least by buying from abroad or on the black market. The impact on the smoking rate would be negligible, although it would help fill the coffers of the ‘public health’ groups that are lobbying for it.

More encouragingly, the government mentions e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products. If combustible cigarettes eventually disappear, it will be thanks to such devices. There is little doubt that vaping has done more to lower the smoking rate in recent years than heavy-handed regulation, but it has been the result of consumer preferences and market forces, not arbitrary targets from the state. Regulators have only hindered the vaping revolution.

The government intends to set ‘an ultimatum for industry to make smoked tobacco obsolete by 2030, with smokers quitting or moving to reduced risk products like e-cigarettes’. I have no doubt that many smokers will make the transition to these products over the next decade, but the industry cannot force them. Personally, I prefer vaping to smoking and made the switch seven years ago, but I know many people who greatly prefer the traditional cigarette and have no intention of quitting. The government has an unrealistic view of market economics if it thinks that industry can dictate terms to consumers.

It is conceivable – indeed, likely – that the combustible cigarette will go the way of clay pipes and snuff sooner or later. Future historians will associate them with the 20th century, not the 21st. The smoking rate will probably be very much lower in 2030 than it is today, but it will not be zero and will almost certainly be well above zero. Any attempt to push prohibition on people who have not consented to it will end in failure – and if they consent to it, there is no need for prohibition.

Christopher Snowdon is director of lifestyle economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs. He is also the co-host of Last Orders, spiked’s nanny-state podcast. Listen to the latest episode below:

This article originally appeared on Christopher Snowdon’s blog.

Picture by: Getty.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.


Martin Bishop

28th July 2019 at 12:36 pm

What was discovered might not have been pretty, but was it really that surprising? Politicians seem to slip into Negative Controlling Parent often, rather than looking at the underlying causes for events. It’s not really surprising though, given that appointing someone to govern over us seems to be an act of appointing a parent figure when you can’t get rid of them for 5 years, or block anything they decide to implement on a whim.

Neil McCaughan

28th July 2019 at 7:50 am

It’s an uncomfortable truth that many of our women politicians are ignorant, dogmatic and dictatorial. Appalling incompetent idiots like Nicola Sturgeon and Theresa May, who have so much in common, anti-democratic extremists like Caroline Lucas, Lady Hyacinth Nugee and Jo Swinson, dim ideologues like Maria Miller, Diane Abbott and Joanna Cherry. As David Starkey wisely suggested, the last thing the country needs is more women politicians. I expect that observation will provoke a response from our own dim, low-information, dictatorial ideologue, Mr Kantor.

Ian Bland

27th July 2019 at 2:24 am

I don’t think smoking will go obsolete on its own. It may be prohibited and become an illicit drug but, having tried “vaping”, smoking is personally just more enjoyable to me and I cannot imagine willingly switching.

Our only hope for any sort of liberty in this country is a revival of actual liberal values, which means knocking the puritanism we call Progressivism off its perch. This is not impossible to imagine; the puritan period they put in place in late Victorian times and lasted until 1950 collapsed (one reason they switched to new targets like health fanaticism) so the pendulum may swing back. We can only hope.

Joe Van-roy

26th July 2019 at 9:48 pm

True liberalism would be to do anything you want so long as it doesnt interfere with someone else’s enjoyment. Which smoking certainly does outside of the persons own home.

I dont want to feel sick entering and leaving buildings as smokers decide ‘f*ck everyone else Im smoking right here’
I dont want to see or touch stub ends and filters that take decades to bio degrade on the grass in parks, in the sand on beaches. I dont want them in my car after they stick to shoes in car parks. I dont want to ride a motorcycle and see smokers flick their still alight butts out of the window and sometimes the packets too.
You’re selfish addicts. You also stink by the way.

Ian Bland

27th July 2019 at 2:27 am

True Liberalism also recognises compromise as everything affects everything in some degree. A liberal society recognises that the public space is a place for compromise rather than complying entirely with one person’s personal list of things they don’t want.

Jerry Owen

26th July 2019 at 5:51 pm

I have yet another comment awaiting moderation, why does this keep happening ?

Jimbob McGinty

26th July 2019 at 7:05 pm

Same here, certainly an odd place to find “moderation” aka censorship. Come on Spiked, practise what you preach.

Jerry Owen

26th July 2019 at 4:22 pm

I speak as a non smoker ( ever ) but my wife is an ex smoker.
I detest the sweet, odd smells and vast clouds of fog that come from vaping.
I actually prefer the smell of a traditional fag / roll up any day of the week.
If i had my way I would not ban either, I think they are both relegated enough out of harms way.
We are slowly but surely being taxed and legislated out of any pleasures whatsoever.
I would sign any petition to protect the rights of smokers.
May is a despicable woman she cried when she resigned , her retribution to us is vindictive indeed.

John Mumaw

26th July 2019 at 2:34 pm

Pardon me while I light up. Épater la bourgeoisie!

Amelia Cantor

26th July 2019 at 11:03 am

Yes, Brexiteers: please be like Rod Liddle and smoke like chimneys 24/7. Nicotine and tar are health-tonics for cisgender white males. So are alcohol and fried food.

Jerry Owen

26th July 2019 at 4:15 pm

A Cantor
Still crying !
Boo Hoo

Jimbob McGinty

26th July 2019 at 6:59 pm

You’re either Titania McGrath 2 or some spotty little hormonal teenage spunktrumpet sounding way out of your depth amongst grownups.
Come clean, which?

Neil McCaughan

28th July 2019 at 7:51 am

A professional chip-fryer like A.K. inveighing against fried food, eh?

cliff resnick

26th July 2019 at 10:03 am

Mrs May legacy has already been written “the worst prime minister of all time” and remember it was the arch EU federalist like Lagarde and Keneth Clarke who were some of her more outspoken backers. The women is a walking disaster area. Given a binary choice between two conflicting outcomes you can bet your bottom dollar that Mrs May would go for the wrong one and would justify it to the very end as the only sensible choice and that has been tested by reality.

Jonathan Yonge

26th July 2019 at 9:52 am

I am amazed that driving cars wasn’t also banned, considering the death toll.
In fact, why not ban having babies – and therefore death – altogether ?

christopher barnard

26th July 2019 at 9:39 am

You haven’t explained how anything Mrs May has done ties the hands of any government which follows hers. People are free to elect MPs who would enact laws which would make it mandatory for councils to give out cigarettes in every school playground if they so choose. I fail to see why any laws to restrict smoking made by an elected government are illiberal.

Jonathan Yonge

26th July 2019 at 9:50 am

… I expect you are looking forward to restriction on your freedom to post comments too.
Wake up

christopher barnard

26th July 2019 at 10:48 am

You want the freedom to smoke in pubs and workplaces? Then campaign for it, tell your MP you want it, stand for parliament on a pro-smoking manifesto. The laws against smoking were made by a parliament elected by the people. How is that illiberal?

Tom Burkard

26th July 2019 at 6:37 pm

The principle that no Parliament can bind its successor has been around for centuries, but so has the principle that we’re all equal before the law. Ironically, the Equalities Act put paid to that. Freedom of Speech has only been with us for two hundred years or so, but hate speech legislation has put paid to that.

Dick Puddlecote

27th July 2019 at 7:23 pm

The 2005 Labour government was elected on a manifesto that stated there would be exemptions to the ban for pubs that didn’t serve food and members only clubs who chose not to adopt it. No-one has ever voted for the ban we got so your democratic argument doesn’t apply.

Philip Davies

26th July 2019 at 7:05 am

These people who need to learn how to govern us with wisdom should be required to read JS Mill On Liberty, at least once per year and they should learn by heart the harm principle; “the state should exert no power over any citizen except to prevent harm to others”

Jim Lawrie

26th July 2019 at 9:25 am

Taken to its extreme in the above interpretation of those who know best, my switching on my laptop and you posting your contribution generates pollution that harms others. It really would be lights out under them.

christopher barnard

26th July 2019 at 10:50 am

People smoking harms me. Secondary smoking is harmful, and so are the taxes required to pay for NHS treatment for people who damage themselves by smoking.

John Mumaw

26th July 2019 at 2:36 pm

The danger of secondhand smoke is vastly inflated. And that you think you have a right to monitor others’ behavior on the grounds that you pay into NHS perhaps suggests that we should eliminate NHS. It has become an occasion of tyranny.

Jimbob McGinty

26th July 2019 at 8:29 pm

What harm exactly is it causing you? Can you honestly isolate second hand tobacco smoke as its sole cause?.
It seems to me that proportion of the air thats been exhaled by smokers and emitted from burning cigarettes surely pales into insignificance alongside all the smoke / particulates that originate from the combustion of other hydrocarbons and organic matter that mankind is responsible for?
You are free to dislike smoking, its a matter of personal preference. However you cant conflate this with harm. If tobacco smoking just stopped worldwide tomorrow, the air would not be any cleaner.

Joe Van-roy

26th July 2019 at 9:43 pm

Smokers are a selfish breed and often quite obnoxious

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to comment. Log in or Register now.