Plain packaging is just puritanical politics as usual

The war on Big Tobacco, Big Alcohol and Big Sugar

Photograph: Cigarettes by PeterFranz

You may have heard about new plain packaging regulations being rolled out against tobacco companies in the UK. The Tobacco and Related Products Regulations (2016) gives the industry until May 2017 to comply with new sanctions which dictate standardised colour and font (Helvetica in bold) as well as positioning for some of our favourite paternalistic health warnings like ‘Smoking kills – quit now’. It also introduces regulations against electronic cigarettes, most notably to prevent any advertising for the products.

All this is just another chapter in the war on Big Tobacco. Every few years the World Health Organisation (WHO) produces reports on what it calls a ‘global tobacco epidemic’ to advocate the very sort of regulations being implemented in this legislation. In June 2016 the WHO even took some time to wag a stern finger at Syria, telling it to address the very important matter of introducing its own plain packaging regulations. The issue is apparently so important that a nation torn apart by a catastrophic civil war should stop to think about which colour and font it should use to print health warnings across cigarette packets.

Just to get a few things out of the way before I start. Smoking tobacco is obviously going to have a negative impact on your health. Regulations that control unnecessarily harmful additives are important. Organisations that raise awareness or provide support for those trying to quit should be applauded for their efforts. But when it comes to Government inspectors measuring the print on little cardboard boxes I wonder whether or not they have anything better to do. And when they force me to carry around ugly images of diseased lungs I would much prefer they just got out of my way altogether. These things don’t make me think twice about smoking, they only serve as small reminders of how intrusive the state is becoming.

Yet the war on Big Tobacco is just one front in a broader crusade against our private lifestyle choices. Alcohol has long been subject to sanctions, but new Government guidelines published in January 2016 have reduced recommended unit limitations and implied that there is no level at which someone can consume alcohol safely. Regulators have also set their eyes on sugar. The Soft Drinks Industry Levy (commonly called a sugar tax) was introduced in the Budget 2016. This disincentive on sugary drinks is intended to address our populations rapidly expanding waistlines.

Putting aside perfectly legitimate arguments about alcohol’s connection to criminal behaviour, the only logical reason for the state to interfere with these industries is to improve public health. The NHS is struggling to cover costs and people who intentionally harm their health by overusing certain products are posing a serious problem to the service. It is therefore in the public interest to resist what must seem like an assault on the tax-funded institution. For that reason, so long as the UK has socialised healthcare there might be persuasive reasons to impose some ‘sin taxes’ on products that are directly linked to serious health problems like cancer, heart decease, obesity etc.

But that’s where the line should be drawn. Beyond paying for their own self-inflicted health problems, people should be free to make whatever lifestyle choices they want so long as they do not harm anyone else. When the state actively takes steps to limit consumer choices and passes down detailed edicts on packaging it has gone too far. Still more concerning is the growing trend towards limiting consumption or outright banning of these products. At the risk of being accused of making a slippery slope fallacy, I can’t help but notice we are in fact slipping down a slope towards increasingly puritanical impositions on individual freedom.

Public Health England aims to have a ‘tobacco-free generation’ by 2025. In order to achieve this goal, it is not enough to usher smokers out of enclosed public spaces. Brighton & Hove City Council and Kent County Council have considered implementing numerous outdoor ‘smoke-free zones’ to limit opportunities for people to light up outside of their own house. A small beach in wales has already piloted one of these schemes. In 2014 the British Medical Association voted to begin lobbying for a ban on sales of tobacco to anyone born after the millennium. It might seem silly to imagine an entire generation being criminalised for the personal choice to inhale burned plant matter, although other laws of that same nature are vigorously enforced in the UK.

It is an offence to drink alcohol anywhere in Scotland, other than private homes or licensed premises. Anyone caught in public with an open container of alcohol is forced to exchange it for a fine. Public Space Protection Orders give Police in England special powers to confiscate alcohol from people in certain public areas as well. In other words, alcohol really is illegal in some parts of the UK depending on the circumstances under which it is being consumed.

I would very much like for the powers that be to get on with important tasks of statehood and get out of my personal business. We should be left alone to make whatever lifestyle choices we want so long as there is no harm done to anyone else. Just as some taxpayers might have no interest in paying for a smokers oxygen tank, there should not be a penny spent on enforcing laws regulating the design of small cardboard boxes. This is another step in what seems to be a growing puritanical movement against certain industries. With the possible exception of sin taxes to help mediate whatever costs such behaviour has on the NHS, there is absolutely no legitimate purpose for any Government to interfere with an adult’s free choice to use a product, regardless of whether it is unhealthy or even dangerous to their own wellbeing.


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William Campbell 3 Articles
William studied at the University of Glasgow and graduated MA (Hons) Political Science. He has experience working in roles related to criminal justice in Scotland and is interested in International Relations and political philosophy.

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