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A risk-free life is not worth living

Rishi Sunak’s smoking ban will turn the next generation into permanent infants.

Lionel Shriver

Topics Politics UK

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Imagine you’re planning to go on holiday with a friend but feeling a bit lazy. Your friend volunteers to manage all the logistics. Brilliant. All you need to do is show up. But then you discover that you’re on a cut-rate 6am flight, when you would have paid extra to get a decent night’s sleep. The hotel has a communal loo. The restaurants booked are vegetarian, when you had wanted to sample the meaty tagines of Morocco. Rather than go on a camel trek, you’ve pre-purchased a day-long course in North African flower arranging.

To abdicate responsibility is also to abdicate power. When we give over to the state the burden of solving our problems, the absence of personal accountability feels pleasant at first, but eventually leads to consternation, constraint and helplessness – which are anything but pleasant. And once we’ve accepted that a range of private matters are the state’s business, there’s no returning to the days when we booked our own flights and hotel rooms. States vary in how they’re organised, but rarely vary in this respect: they never hand power back.

Given that Rishi Sunak’s smoking ban enjoys majority popular support, most Britons clearly regard it as harmless, if not laudable. The Tobacco and Vapes Bill, which passed its first reading in the House of Commons earlier this week, makes it illegal for anyone born after 1 January 2009 to buy tobacco products for the rest of their lives. It is intended to raise this and all subsequent generations as tobacco-free. Who could object to that?

I could. We already disallow minors from buying cigarettes. It’s an entirely different matter for the law to follow children into adulthood and make decisions for them in realms that should become their business. Pragmatically, this law will prove a nightmare to enforce, and will surely hold the law up to mockery. Theoretically, in 2091, an 83-year-old (who, say, already has terminal cancer) cannot buy a packet of fags to see out his last days, while his 84-year-old companion can. Do we want to pass any laws that pertain to one age of adult and not another? It would be more democratically consistent to ban smoking for everyone and to make the sale of tobacco products to anyone illegal.

Which would be unworkable, of course. The black market would thrive, while the exchequer would be deprived of £10 billion in duty revenue. Lose-lose. That’s why Sunak is picking on 15-year-olds who can’t vote. Conveniently, any theoretical drop-off of tobacco duty this law might entail is delayed until he’s out of office.

If we embrace this principle of generational discrimination, there’s no end to the aspects of younger people’s lives that the state can control, since the underaged can’t object through the ballot box. Let’s say they can’t drive petrol-fuelled cars. Or they can’t drive cars at all. They can’t take aeroplanes – too much carbon emission. They can’t buy crisps or biscuits. Maybe we can force them to run twice around a football pitch before they’re allowed to order an all-plant-sourced lunch. They certainly can’t gamble or purchase alcohol.

Why, we could draw a line, after which generation after generation of Britons are perfect people, an uber-race. They’re never fat, drunk or broke. They always take public transportation. Thanks to the benevolence of the state, our children are legally prevented from making all the mistakes that we made. Why, maybe we can even raise them to have all the same righteous opinions! (Oops, sorry, we already do that.) There’s only one tiny downside: they won’t be living in a democracy. Maybe they’ll become automatons, but if these socially engineered perfect grown-ups have an ounce of spunk left, it’s more likely they become serial killers.

Life is full of risks. We calculate them every time we cross the road or order the short ribs, not the kale salad. You’re welcome to differ, but as an adult I, for one, want to control what I eat, what I smoke, what I drink, whether I take an aeroplane, what I weigh, how much exercise I get and, taxes notwithstanding, what I buy. In trade, I accept responsibility for those decisions. I do not want to farm out that responsibility to Rishi Sunak or anyone else.

It’s been widely observed that tobacco use has plummeted without such heavy-handed interventions. When public health is trending in the right direction, why not leave it alone? If anything, this law will make smoking seem more attractive to today’s 15-year-olds because the forbidden is intrinsically seductive. I could easily see the first 18-year-olds prevented from buying tobacco launching out to score 12 B&H’s as a rite of passage just to make a point (that point being, succinctly, ‘Fuck you’).

While we’re at it, the question of how much smokers cost the NHS is often misunderstood as a calculation of how much revenue the state derives from tobacco duty versus how much smokers directly cost the service from ill-health. Uh-uh. Smokers save the NHS, if you will, a packet. Not because of the tobacco duty they pay, but because, on average, they die early, and the vast proportion of health expenses accrue in advanced age.

More broadly, we’re still recovering from a nearly fatal overdose of public-health authoritarianism during the pandemic. After all the tiers and scotch eggs and rules of six, we have little to show for two years of control freakery besides roughly the same number of deaths as we would have had if we had been trusted to calculate our own risks, poorly educated school children and a mountain of debt.

We’re facing the winds of still more authoritarianism in relation to climate, being threatened with absolute state control over where and how we can travel, how and whether we can stay warm and what we can eat. It seems minor, but Rishi’s tobacco ban is a chip off the same illiberal block: more condescending virtue imposed from on high.

In a free country, we make our own decisions, including our own mistakes. We book our own hotels, even if it turns out that the loo is filthy, in an inch of water and down the hall.

Lionel Shriver is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book, Mania, is published by the Borough Press.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics UK

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