As I please - Time to change tack on tobacco


The definition of irony. A British Red Cross ambulance paid for by the workers of the Bristol cigarette manufacturers WD & HO Wills 1914-18. Image courtesy of brizzle born and bred.

As a life long non-smoker and rabid anti-smoker, no one has appreciated and enjoyed the progressive decline in smokers’ freedoms than me.

A combination of punitive taxation and escalating restrictions on the places people can smoke, as well better education and more effective quitting programmes are taking their toll on the the hardcore of smokers out there.

And hurrah for that. Britain is an immeasurably more civilized place to live and work in now that you virtually never smell cigarette smoke.

However, even I have started to wonder whether it is time to change the focus of society’s efforts at stubbing out tobacco use. Even I have begun to wonder whether we need to lighten up on those that chose to light up and to put a halt to further restrictions in the freedom that smokers enjoy.

Most anti-drugs programme attack supply not just demand and yet the vast majority of the anti-smoking effort is directed against smokers rather than the makers of the stuff themselves. Increasingly this feels like a cop out.

In any functioning market economy there are a whole array of freedoms that commercial organisations should and do enjoy. The freedom to make the products and services that they see fit, the freedom to set their price, the freedom to promote them and the freedom to establish and use 'brands' to maximise the sales and profitability of those products or services.

They are freedoms in as much that society can limit them if commercial organisations, or the sectors to which they belong, transgress the rules and codes of that society. We might call this a withdrawal of priviledges, much as you might progressively withdraw freedoms from a trucculant teenager. And this is the place we should concentrate our efforts as a society, further withdrawal of the priviledges and commerical freedoms of the Tobacco industry.

It is true that we have already withdrawn the priviledge to promote tobacco in paid for media but the the next step in attacking the supply side of the battle against smoking has to be to remove the freedom to ‘brand’ their products and thus force the industry into a commodity market.

As we preach on a daily basis commodity markets are terribly unattractive place to be and particularly in this sector which is more dependent on its brands than its customers are on the weed.

Brands create sales and generate profits by making products more attractive to people than reason of price and availability would suggest. They are a means to establish and maintain market share and to command a premium over the competition for parity or near products. As we have so often said, brands are a business person’s best friend.

And that’s what makes it imperative that the right to use brand tools is removed from this sector. Commodity tobacco with products graded according to nicotine strength will remove what little wind is left in the sails and sales of Big Tobacco. After all attacking the supply side of the business is the real front line in the battle against smoking, not maximising the number of shivering people huddling outside the office having a desperate fag.

'As I please' was the name of George Orwell's regular column in Tribune during the Second World War


Rather than attempting to protect people from an unwanted intrusion on their health, the tobacco bans are the unwanted intrusion. Loudly billed as measures that only affect "public places," they have actually targeted private places: restaurants, bars, nightclubs, shops, and offices--places whose owners are free to set anti-smoking rules or whose customers are free to go elsewhere if they don't like the smoke. Some local bans even harass smokers in places where their effect on others is obviously negligible, such as outdoor public parks.

The decision to smoke, or to avoid "second-hand" smoke, is a question to be answered by each individual based on his own values and his own assessment of the risks. This is the same kind of decision free people make regarding every aspect of their lives: how much to spend or invest, whom to befriend or sleep with, whether to go to college or get a job, whether to get married or divorced, and so on. All of these decisions involve risks; some have demonstrably harmful consequences; most are controversial and invite disapproval from the neighbors. But the individual must be free to make these decisions. He must be free, because his life belongs to him, not to his neighbors.

Posted by: Fernando at June 25, 2008 12:29 PM

Aside from the decidedly dodgy evidence behind the impact of Second Hand Smoke (ludicrously exaggerated) the issue of public money being spend in wastefully useless anti-smoking campaigns is worth noting here.

As Allen Carr pointed out, no one smokes for the reasons they shouldn't. So campaigns that focus on the lethal ingredients in tobacco are laughably off the mark when it comes to convincing smokers to quit.

Last year's Cannes Direct Grand Prix winner - a Haz Waste tanker dressed up as a cigarette was ridiculous. As an ex-smoker, I know this didn't convince one single smoker to stop. Not one. (Of the 50 or 100 people who even saw it anyway!)

If you want to get people to stop, you need to stop glamorizing smoking (and that means movies, tv), and stop brainwashing people (even non smokers) that it provides anything other than basic nicotine delivery (it doesn't help you concentrate, relax, deal with stress etc).

NHS programmes are laughable in their failings - single digit success rates.

You can't alienate people without giving them the proper means to stop.

Posted by: Damien at June 25, 2008 01:17 PM

I've suffered enough over the years from the vile habits of smokers - so much so that I positively enjoy seeing them shivering and suffering. Finally they're learning the lesson that in a civilised society, a person's freedom is unlimited - until it impairs the freedom of someone else.

Posted by: rabid at June 25, 2008 05:12 PM