Vice Nation: Smoking IV – Smoking & Independence

(Pic: BBC Wales)

In the final part of this mini series on nicotine products, I look at the policy options that might be available to Wales in the event of further devolution or independence.

 


There are very few, if any, nations that don’t have at least partial curbs on smoking. There are, of course, variations in how anti-smoking laws and regulations are enforced – China is notorious for its lax enforcement, and they’re paying the price with an estimated 2 million people expected to die each year from smoking-related illnesses by 2030.
In Germany and the United States, smoking laws are decided at a state level and are patchy – 28 US states have public smoking bans, 10 don’t have any state-wide bans of any kind (or at most require designated smoking and non-smoking areas).It’s also true to say that anti-smoking laws in Wales, and the rest of the UK and Europe, are particularly strict compared to most of the world.Public Attitudes to Smoking

Before considering what policy options might be available, it’s worth looking at attitudes towards current restrictions.A YouGov poll from March 2015 on behalf of Ash Cymru found (pdf):

  • 81% support the current smoking ban in enclosed public spaces (including 50% of smokers).
  • 60% support banning smoking in cars, while 54% support banning smoking in communal recreational spaces (i.e. playgrounds).
  • 70% support putting tobacco products out of sight in shops, while 83% support introducing licences for tobacco retailers.
  • 78% supported a “help to quit” scheme aimed at 11-25 year olds (none currently exists).
  • 38% of e-cig users said they used them to help them quit smoking, while 20% said they used them to cut down on the amount of cigarettes they smoke. Only 2% believe they’re more harmful than cigarettes.
  • A majority (51%) support controlling the advertising and sale of e-cigs in the same way as tobacco.

Smoking Laws in Wales: A Recap
  • Health warnings started to appear on UK tobacco packets in 1971; by 2009 it was mandated that at least one full side of a packet should consist of a health warning.
  • Tobacco advertising was banned in stages between 1989 and 2005.
  • The age to buy tobacco products was raised from 16 to 18 in 2007.
  • Smoking was banned in all enclosed public spaces in Wales in 2007, though other smoking bans (on public transport etc.) have existed for longer.
  • Tobacco vending machines were banned in Wales in 2012.
  • Tobacco displays in supermarkets have had to be kept behind screens since December 2012; this was extended to smaller stores in April 2015.
  • Since October 1st 2015 it’s illegal to smoke in a private vehicle whilst in the presence of someone under the age of 18 in Wales.
  • Plain cigarette packaging will be introduced in the UK in May 2016.
  • The Public Health Bill (Wales-only) proposes introducing a ban on smoking and using e-cigs in workplaces, a register of tobacco retailers, extending the age to buy e-cigs to 18 and – as mentioned in Part III – introducing a ban on using e-cigs in enclosed public spaces or designated vehicles.

What could an independent Wales do?

All things considered tobacco is, without a doubt, the most heavily-restricted legal drug.

That means there’s very little room to manoeuvre in terms of new smoking policies. If policy-makers are going to continue their clamp down on smoking post-independence, they’ll have to be clever and innovative about it.

As I see it there are three broad categories where a final few policies can be squeezed out before we move towards total bans on smoking.

1. Tighter regulation of tobacco and tobacco ingredients

 

  • Brazil banned all flavoured tobacco in 2012, and only allows 8 additives to be used in tobacco (compared to the usual several hundred). They gave tobacco companies 18 months to withdraw all non-complying tobacco from sale.
  • Work at a global/international level to encourage tobacco farmers to shift from tobacco production to food, perhaps through a ban on tobacco imports from countries that subsidise tobacco production.

2. Make smoking more expensive
  • Smoking employees could pay a tithe as compensation to employers for lost production due to unofficial cigarette breaks. British Heart Foundation research has found full-time smoking employees cost employers up to £1,815 a year, with a figure of £447 for part-time workers.
  • Further hikes in tobacco duties. The current price of a pack of 20 cigarettes ranges from £8-£10, which is a bit more expensive than the equivalent for e-cigarettes. It’s been recommended by a cross-party UK Parliament group that the price of a pack of cigarettes should rise to £20, though long-term inflation is likely to take the price that high anyway.
  • Minimum price per cigarette (or equivalent) – if it’s being considered for alcohol, then surely the same principle should apply to tobacco?
  • Deliberately introduce lower excise duties for e-cigs than tobacco products.

3. Make smoking more inconvenient
  • Ban supermarkets and convenience stores over a certain size from selling tobacco products, so they can only be bought from smaller specially-licenced retailers or pharmacies.
  • Make cigarettes and cigars smaller in length and thinner so they contain less tobacco and, subsequently, less nicotine. This would be trolling on a national level, but might help shift smokers to e-cigs as part of a harm reduction policy. It would probably have to be led at EU-level though.
  • Limit the amount of tobacco a person can buy at any one time – in the same way sales of things like paracetamol are limited to two packs at a time.
  • Ban smoking tobacco in all public indoor and outdoor spaces – effectively confining smoking to the home, private outdoor business property and private gardens.
  • As has been considered with foetal alcohol syndrome, consider making smoking during pregnancy a criminal offence.

Of course, an independent government could also go against the grain and relax some of the existing rules and restrictions by, for example, reintroducing indoor public smoking through the use of designated smoking rooms, or rejecting things like plain packaging. That’s unlikely to happen though.

The Nuclear Option: Can smoking be banned completely?

There’s a fairly good chance that within a generation or two smoking anywhere other than the home will be illegal. It probably wouldn’t take much more effort after that to ban smoking completely.

Medical professionals support an outright ban on smoking, and I’m sure many politicians and public health officials would too. In 2014, the British Medical Association voted in favour of a complete smoking ban, phased in by banning anyone born after 2000 from purchasing or using tobacco.

The situation with regard e-cigs will be a bit more complicated, but once 80%+ of current smokers have switched – which on current trends could happen in the next 20-30 years – there’ll probably be a strong enough case to bring the curtain down on cigarettes, cigars and pipes in the same way leaded petrol was replaced by unleaded petrol.

Nobody will really miss it as long as they have an alternative. So there’s a decent chance smoking will die out even without a ban.

Only one nation currently has an outright ban on the cultivation, sale and consumption of tobacco products – the devout Buddhist Kingdom of Bhutan, which passed a law in 2010. However, other countries are set on their way towards phasing out tobacco:

 

  • Iceland – A former Icelandic health minister introduced a Members’ Bill which would have banned tobacco sales and made it a prescription-only drug.
  • New Zealand – In 2011, the New Zealand adopted a goal to make the country smoke-free by 2025.
  • Finland – In 2010, the Finnish Government set out to completely ban smoking by 2040 and already has some of the strictest anti-smoking laws in the world.
  • France – The French Government have long-term goals to abolish smoking over the next 40 years.

Smoking, in a twisted way, has its advantages to the state. It keeps the population down (meaning savings in welfare and pension payments) and it also helps keep income-based taxes down too; after all, you’re taxing something people are addicted to so the money’s going to roll in.Like alcohol, if smoking didn’t raise more in taxes than was spent on smoking-related illnesses, tobacco/nicotine would probably be an illegal Class A drug.


Nevertheless, banning smoking is always going to come with a lengthy list of unintended consequences which would probably put the brakes on it:

  • Criminalisation – Unless they’ve already diversified, you’ll be criminalising tobacco producers, manufacturers and executives overnight, turning them from monkeys in suits into Pablo Escobar. It could well shift tobacco underground and many of the current problems we see with narcotics (Wales on Drugs) – like legal highs, heroin and cocaine – will start to make their way into the tobacco trade. There are already huge problems with counterfeit cigarettes.
  • Legal action – A total smoking ban would almost certainly lead to hefty and damaging lawsuits from tobacco companies – the poor dabs – due to restriction of trade.There’s a pretty good chance they would win against a single country, but if it were led a global level, their chances would be slimmer.
  • The economic impact – Criminalising tobacco would destroy the livelihoods of some of the poorest farmers in the world. Some countries actually subsidise tobacco production anyway, and there would well be positives if these farmers are encouraged to switch to food production.
  • The impact on pension schemes and investments – I suspect there’s tens of billions of pounds in private money, including many pension schemes, tied up in tobacco companies. Local authorities are said to have up to £2billion of pension investments in tobacco companies alone.
  • Tax – As covered in Part I, smoking generated some £9.6billion in duties for the UK and £421million in Wales alone in 2014-15. Although there would be savings made in the longer-term resulting from a reduction in smoking-related diseases, all those who already have those diseases still require treatment, and there would be a funding gap that would have to be closed – probably by raising taxes elsewhere.

I don’t think I could ever support a complete ban – a public use ban certainly, but I suspect that would be the absolute limit the population at large would accept
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Prohibition doesn’t work and has never worked, and you imagine what damage it would do if tobacco ended up in an underground economy run by criminals in the same way as other drugs.


If people are going to want to use nicotine, and public health campaigns can’t stub it out, then based on the evidence we have, we should be using policy to actively push smokers away from tobacco and towards safer alternatives for nicotine delivery – a policy of harm reduction.