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Brian Monteith: Will the persecution of smokers ever stop under Conservatives?

Brian Monteith is a former Tory student chairman and Conservative MSP.  He is now editor of

Screen shot 2013-08-06 at 11.12.14In June this year, our Coalition Government agreed a general response to the European Commission’s Tobacco Products Directive (TPD) at a meeting of European health ministers in Luxembourg.  Unfortunately, because the Conservative Public Health Minister, Anna Soubry, avoided the House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee, Members of Parliament were denied the opportunity to discuss the directive and the ramifications of its proposals are only now beginning to emerge.

The Luxembourg meeting agreed, among other things, to ban the sale of menthol cigarettes and increase the size of health warnings on all tobacco products throughout the European Union. If passed by MEPs in September, the Tobacco Products Directive will also prohibit smaller pouches of roll your own tobacco and severely restrict the shape and size of cigarette packets.

Whatever one thinks of Europe and its hunger for more and more regulations, this latest assault on the buying and selling of a legal product in Britain is entirely self-inflicted by our own government. Who would have expected a Conservative-led government to take Labour’s public health regulations that restricted the availability or consumption of tobacco and the campaigns that demonised smokers – and seek to make them even more punitive?

The Conservative Party had originally suggested that, if elected to government, it would not follow through with the removal from sight of cigarettes and other tobacco products that Labour had planned to introduce before its defeat in 2010.  With an eye on protecting the fragile incomes of small shopkeepers vital to local neighbourhoods, such a costly and invasive policy did not appear in the election manifesto or Coalition Agreement. And yet the Coalition succumbed to the tobacco control lobby, and soon carried on with the policy regardless.

The Government’s recent decision not to introduce the Australian-style standardised packaging of cigarette packets was portrayed by David Cameron’s opponents as a U-turn that must have been engineered by the prime minister’s  political strategist, Lynton Crosby. But U-turns can only happen where a policy exists; again, the idea was not in any manifesto (even Labour had previously rejected it) or the Coalition Agreement.  The clamour for the legislation was entirely synthetic, whipped up by ASH and fellow lobbyists, the public Health Minister making policy up on the hoof and the drive for more controls from within the Department of Health. 

There was a time – that seems so long ago now – when David Cameron and George Osborne were reading “Nudge - improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness” and saying this was how the Conservatives would manage public health – helping to guide people to make the right decisions in their own interest.  This so-called libertarian paternalism was said to be the answer to Conservatives not having done enough in the past to address issues such as smoking, obesity and alcoholism; it would leave people their freedoms, but point them in the direction of travel.

Well, whatever happened to nudge theory in the Coalition government remains a mystery - for the outright banning of menthol cigarettes, slim cigarettes and small pouches of roll-your-own tobacco is nothing other than prescriptive.  It is bullying authoritarianism dressed up as social concern.

The argument about menthol cigarettes is that it encourages young people to take up smoking as they are flavoured, but this is an incredibly weak justification, as the main entry to smoking is through cheap counterfeit and passed-on cigarettes from peers. Tobacco has always been flavoured  – just look at the different types of pipe tobacco, all of which are flavoured. Sorry, I forgot the displays of these have been banned!

Meanwhile, the idea for plain packaging has not gone away but remains very much alive and will no doubt resurface in a few years time under a new Public Health Minister, for it would seem that whoever is given that post is soon under the spell of the Department if he or she was not already of the same view.

For years, some of us have warned that some public health campaigners and politicians will only be happy when the sale and consumption of tobacco is prohibited and smoking is made illegal. Clearly, we are on the road to prohibition when an entire category such as menthol-flavoured tobacco is to be outlawed.

This and other regulations in the Directive could have serious repercussions for British retailers, many of whom will struggle with a further loss of business. If the products under threat are banned, some UK shops could see 20 per cent of their usual stock of tobacco removed from the shelves. How will they replace the revenue they earn from those products? Yet another victory for the large supermarkets.

The impact of the legislation will also be felt by millions of law-abiding consumers, who will be denied the choice they once took for granted in what they thought was a free and open society. Criminal gangs will of course be only too happy to meet demand on the black market, countering the claims that the bans are to reduce the attractiveness of taking up smoking by young people. The more smoking and access to tobacco is made difficult, the more the counterfeiters are able to ply their unlicensed and unscrupulous products to younger people. The more smoking is demonised by the state the more it is seen as a rite of passage to becoming a young rebel with a cause.

It is time for Conservatives to redefine public health, and take it away from this incessant attack on individual lifestyle choices and back to diseases that are infectious and contagious – in other words public.  People need to take responsibility for themselves, and thus their families and their communities – learn from their mistakes and pass on the experience so that our cultural attitudes and behaviour changes.  The pace of change may not satisfy a politician’s immediate need to be seen to be doing something, but the result is more lasting and accepted. That way is democratic, that way is Conservative.

Most of all, we need to prevent health policy from trying to force people to live as long as miserably possible towards improving the quality of life and those we care for. The directive can still be halted, the British smokers’ group Forest has launched a new campaign that will give consumers and retailers in Britain a much-needed voice against the latest EU Directive, seeking to influence MEPs. It’s called NoThankEU, and it follows the successful Hands Off Our Packs campaign on plain packaging.

The campaign website has more information, but here are five reasons to oppose the Tobacco Products Directive:

  1. Have we learned nothing from history? Prohibition doesn't work.
  2. Excessive regulation will deny consumers choice and drive them to the black market and online contraband sales.
  3. Criminal gangs will make a fortune manufacturing and selling prohibited products while legal businesses will lose income and the HMRC the tax receipts.
  4. Don't let the EU impose an extreme regulatory agenda on UK consumers .
  5. What next – alcohol, sugary drinks, convenience foods, salt levels, Caffeine and alcohol drinks? Lobbyists are already campaigning for such laws

To register your support for the campaign against the Tobacco Products Directive, visit


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