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The Conservatives have become the party of prohibition

New Zealand is ditching its smoking ban. It’s time the UK did the same.

Martin Cullip

Topics Politics UK World

Having pioneered the generational smoking ban in 2022, New Zealand has now decided to abandon the policy. The recently elected, centre-right National Party government announced last week it was to repeal the law that stated that anyone born after January 2009 would be prohibited from buying cigarettes. The government says it will use the revenue from tobacco sales to help offset tax cuts.

Yet despite New Zealand’s reversal, British prime minister Rishi Sunak remains steadfast in his pursuit of his own generational ban for England. At the Conservative Party conference in October, Sunak had proudly announced that he planned to follow in New Zealand’s footsteps, banning those aged 14 and younger today from ever being able to smoke. Now that New Zealand has scrapped the ban, this means that England could soon be alone in having this absurdly authoritarian anti-smoking law.

It’s hard to ignore the irony that the Conservative Party, traditionally associated with championing personal freedom and limited government intervention, is now determined to turn the UK into a prohibitionist nanny state. Of course, the Tories’ abandonment of their traditional respect for freedom of choice has been a long time coming. In 2016, chancellor George Osborne imposed a tax on sugary drinks, and in 2021 prime minister Boris Johnson proposed to restrict advertising and promotions of certain ‘unhealthy’ foods.

Nevertheless, this latest prohibitionist turn could end up losing the party more votes – especially in the more economically disadvantaged Red Wall constituencies that were won by Boris Johnson in the 2019 election. These areas will bear the brunt of any further restrictions on tobacco products. As of 2022, the prevalence of current smokers was highest in the north-west and north-east of England, at 14.8 per cent and 14.4 per cent respectively. Sunak clinging to an authoritarian smoking ban may not be the deciding factor for these voters, but it certainly won’t do him any favours.

Even among Tories, the generational ban is far from a popular proposal. A poll of Conservative members by Conservative Home suggests that some 61 per cent oppose the generational ban. Tory MP Neil O’Brien, the former parliamentary under-secretary of state for primary care and public health, had previously criticised adopting a New Zealand-style smoking ban. Back in April, O’Brien told think tank Policy Exchange that such a policy would be ‘a major departure from the policy pursued over recent decades, which has emphasised personal responsibility and help for people to quit’. Even Boris Johnson called the policy ‘barmy’.

The government should think long and hard about whether it wants to continue pursuing a policy that has now been dumped by fellow conservatives in New Zealand. Making a u-turn on the generational smoking ban is unlikely to win the Conservatives the next election. But it’s the right thing to do for freedom. As opposition parties from Labour to the Liberal Democrats all inch towards increasingly authoritarian policy proposals, turning back to the values of freedom of choice and personal responsibility would certainly do the Tories no harm.

Martin Cullip is international fellow at the Taxpayers Protection Alliance’s Consumer Centre.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics UK World

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