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Simon Clark: Whatever happened to the party of business, de-regulation and personal responsibility?

Simon Clark Simon Clark is director of the smokers’ lobby group Forest.

Today is No Smoking Day, an event that seems to have been with us since time began. It was launched in 1984 (surprise, surprise) but under Labour every day felt like no smoking day so the event lost much of its impact. The Coalition Government, it seems, wants to give NSD the kiss of life.

This morning Health Secretary Andrew Lansley has invited retail trade associations to a meeting. According to newspaper reports he will use the platform of No Smoking Day to announce far-reaching tobacco control measures including, controversially, a ban on tobacco branding (aka plain packaging).

The tobacco control movement has been zealously active for decades but it was under Labour that it found a partner that shared its enthusiasm for unlimited regulation and pejorative propaganda (“If you smoke you stink”).

Between 2002 and 2010 the Labour Government banned tobacco advertising and sponsorship, prohibited smoking in all enclosed “public” places (including private members’ clubs), introduced graphic warnings and passed legislation banning the display of tobacco in shops and outlawing tobacco vending machines.

The display ban, we were told, is necessary to stop young people being enticed by “glitzy” packaging. The truth is, hardly anyone buys tobacco on impulse and tens of millions of people (myself included) have never been encouraged to smoke by the sight of a cigarette packet behind the counter (or anywhere else).

In opposition both the Conservatives and the Lib Dems opposed a display ban. The financial cost to small retailers, it was argued, was too much to justify a measure that had very little impact on youth smoking rates when it was introduced in Iceland and Canada.

Labour’s election defeat was supposed to signal the end of hyper-regulation and the bully state. Conservatives were the party of business, de-regulation and the free market. Tories believes in personal responsibility and the right to make informed choices without excessive government intervention.

Or so I thought. Instead, more oppressive rules and regulations. As far as the consumer and small retailers are concerned, Labour could still be in power. What’s the difference? And where is the common sense? If this plan to ban tobacco branding goes ahead, Britain will become a smugglers’ paradise. It will be easier to counterfeit plain packaging, for sure. And who can blame consumers for buying tobacco on the black market at a fraction of the recommended retail price if the legal variety is hidden under the counter in a plain unbranded pack?

Thanks to excessive duty on tobacco, smuggling is already a serious problem that costs the Treasury billions of pounds each year, money that the country can ill afford to lose.  If this policy goes ahead, government may lose control of the tobacco market completely and the revenue it generates could end up in the hands of unscrupulous crooks and counterfeiters. The sale of tobacco will move from responsible, legitimate retailers (selling to informed adults) to irresponsible criminals who won’t think twice about selling cigarettes to children. The legal version will develop the aura of an illicit product, making cigarettes more attractive to some people, including children.

There are other considerations. In a free society the consumer must be allowed to make an informed choice, and brand recognition is part of that process. Ban product branding and the consumer will ultimately be denied choice because why should a manufacturer research and develop new products if they can’t communicate, at the point of sale, with their own consumers?

So who is behind these absurd ideas? Health Secretary Andrew Lansley may be making the announcement but I detect the hands of unelected anti-tobacco activists and faceless, unaccountable mandarins in Whitehall. It’s like a scene from Yes, Minister - but no-one’s laughing.

What next? Later this month Alcohol Focus Scotland and ASH Scotland are joining forces to organise a Scottish Alcohol and Tobacco Policy Summit. The event has already provoked controversy because the organisers have refused to permit any trade representatives to attend. Imagine that – a meeting on alcohol and tobacco that deliberately excludes some of the key stakeholders. And yet it happens all the time and very few people, least of all ministers, object.

On Saturday, at the Conservative spring conference in Cardiff, David Cameron vowed to take on “the enemies of enterprise”. All well and good. But what about the enemies of small business, or the enemies of personal responsibility and civil liberties? There are millions of voters, not only smokers, who feel disenfranchised from the political process. Who will voice their concerns? Who will stand up for small business and the consumer? Not the Conservative-led Coalition government if recent reports prove today to be true.


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