Dirck Hals ‘Gentlemen smoking’ (1627)

A very Tory ban

With Labour support, the Tories’ smoking ban is likely to pass - but, on historical evidence, prohibition is hardly likely to work, says Paul Demarty

Those of us old enough to remember - if you’ll forgive me - the fag-end of the John Major government (1990-97) have ample reminders of those cheerful days at the moment.

Discipline, at the time, was in freefall, with the Tories at sixes and sevens over the signing of the Maastricht Treaty, the proto-Brexiteers being led from the back benches by Margaret Thatcher. One figure after another was forced out by financial and sexual scandals. It was quite a spectacle.

Major retreated to the last redoubt of the bourgeois politician, to be avoided unless absolutely necessary: policy. He announced a grand ‘back to basics’ campaign, to restore something like moral fibre to the nation (a quest rather undermined by David Mellor ‘making the beast with two backs’ in his Chelsea strip). He privatised the railways, which is still going just swimmingly. Most famously of all, he announced the creation of a special telephone hotline that you could ring to find out why some traffic cones were where they were - which presumably focus-grouped well among grouchy motorists, but has since become a byword for total political desperation.

Red meat

So it is with Rishi Sunak, who is likewise throwing whatever he can at the problem of his apparently imminent electoral doom. There are, of course, his endless ill-starred attempts to stop migrants crossing the channel. That is red meat for the core voters. Then there is the perfectly dysfunctional piece of triangulation: his partial smoking ban, which would ban the sale of tobacco products to anyone born after 2009.

There is a rationale for such a ban, naturally. Smoking is - we are told - bad for you. Vaping, included in the ban, is probably better on many points, but there is not yet enough data by half to call it safe, and there have been problems with dodgy off-label imports (the prevalence of sickly sweet-flavoured variants also makes it more attractive to youngsters, who often then ‘graduate’ to cigarettes - just as people graduate from alcopops to beer and wine). Since the mere trifle of millions of people dying is of no real concern in our neoliberal age, there is also the strain put on the national health service, and the huge price tag of treating smoking-related illnesses.

As a political move, however, it seems less than shrewd, merely because it has the effect of highlighting how divided the Tories are. Liz Truss, on her grand book tour - and apparently incapable of reflecting for even five minutes on her own disastrous tenure in No10 - denounced it, as did Kemi Badenoch, who broke cabinet discipline to vote against it on the second reading. Dozens of Tories, all told, found this all rather too much a case of nanny-state overreach, and so - as we noted earlier - the success of the bill is in the gift of Sir Kier Starmer’s Labour (therefore making it useless as an incentive to vote Conservative rather than Labour).

That support has been forthcoming so far. It was, after all, Tony Blair’s government - Starmer’s most obvious model - that banned tobacco advertising, and then smoking in public buildings and workplaces. Much the same rationale was given then. It was a Tory government which later enforced uniformity of packaging on tobacco products, and banned sale in small quantities - first packs of 10 cigarettes and then enforcing a minimum of 25 grams on packs of rolling tobacco. The logic of all this points towards a total ban, but nobody seems to have the courage to go out and just do it.


Why not? Never stated, but surely in the backs of people’s minds, is the total failure of prohibitionary regimes to deal with any other drug. Before the full prohibition of heroin in this country, there were a few hundred heroin addicts. We know this, because there was one reasonable way to get heroin: by prescription. Once the trade was in the hands of the definitionally unregulated criminal underworld, many thousands were rapidly hooked, and they could look forward not to blandly packaged dope of a known strength, but a succession of variants of brown street powder adulterated to an unknown degree.

There is also the notorious case of alcohol prohibition in the United States - a thoroughgoing social disaster that, likewise, probably increased the general spread of dangerous drunkenness, blinded many with dubious bathtub spirits, and turned the Mafia from a petty protection racket into a formidable national organisation.

There is therefore the very real question of the workability of this ban. As some Tories have noted, enforcement is down to people on the desk of every corner shop in the country. Are they expected to try and work out, in 2039, whether a customer is 29 or 30? Will they bother? There is a Hobson’s choice character to all these restrictions. Either they do not actually reduce legal consumption or they shift consumption to the black market.

The prevailing argument against the ban is of the ‘give me liberty or give me death’ stamp. This is, of course, very old. In 1929, Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud and pioneer of modern public relations techniques, was commissioned by American tobacco companies to increase the popularity of smoking among women. The scheme he came up with was astroturfing a demonstration of women in New York City, brandishing cigarettes as ‘torches of freedom’ and associating smoking with the then fashionable ‘flapper’ subculture. A decade ago, I visited Frankfurt, where tobacco advertising was still legal; I saw a billboard advert that depicted a taxi driver, leaning against his cab, lighting a cigarette. The caption: “Five minutes of freedom”.

This is a rather strange view of freedom, on closer examination. There is a hint of the proposition associated with Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer that capitalism divides popular life into two domains: that of work, where there is no illusion of anything other than domination; and leisure time, which is a world of pseudo-freedom, increasingly administered by an overbearing culture industry. Thus, according to the Frankfurt School, the Frankfurt cabbie’s precious “five minutes”.

In the present debate, this feature is brought out quite well by the conservative writer, Peter Hitchens, who supports the ban:

Four years ago, the London government went quite mad, closing schools, churches, bars and workplaces, instructing the population to stay at home, ordering us to wear squares of cloth over our faces and to avoid standing too close to each other … But when the current government sought to enact a new law, that anyone born since January 1 2009 would be banned forever from buying cigarettes, a large part of Tory London rose like lions after slumber, enraged and militant.1

He further notes that the same Conservatives railing against this encroachment are perfectly happy to join Hitchens in rejecting the right to do as one wants with one’s own body in the case of all the drugs that are presently illegal, not to mention abortion. This all strikes him as perfectly ridiculous, and he concludes by predicting that:

If British conservatism is true to form, I shall probably die, some years hence, in a country where free speech, habeas corpus, jury trial, the right to silence and the rest are forgotten and dead, but where we all still retain the sacred right to wheeze and splutter our way to an early, cancerous grave.

Profit motive

Though he is an ex-Trotskyist, Hitchens does not remember enough of his former Marxism to draw the obvious explanation for this inconsistency. Tobacco - and alcohol, for that matter - are both demonstrably more dangerous than many popular recreational drugs currently criminalised: one could name, for the sake of argument, ecstasy, psilocybin and (provided it is not smoked, but vapourised or eaten) marijuana. Under capitalism, however, legality tends to reproduce itself, since it tends to produce powerful vested interests in the substances concerned, with a lot of money to throw at lobbying. (As a counterpoint to the money spent on treating lung cancer and heart disease, the tobacco industry can cite the considerable sums earned by the exchequer in large sales taxes on tobacco products).

Communists do, in fact, embrace as a starting point the freedom to do as one wants with one’s own body. Drugs should be legal: end of story. That goes for nicotine, too. The health risks and associated costs cannot be forgotten; but even that must be problematised. After all, it is not smoking-related illnesses that have crippled the NHS, but deliberate political choices to run it as lean as possible and privatise it by stealth. In the absence of serious, positive social policy to ensure the availability of healthcare, we get this sort of busybody intrusion into people’s lives.

That said, tobacco presents a glaring example of how badly the profit motive interacts with the perfectly natural human desire for subtly or drastically altered states of consciousness. The relentless, cynical marketing; the campaign over decades to suppress and belittle evidence of smoking-related illness - both are clear evidence of the incentive to drive people to an early grave in the name of profit. Much the same could be said of the criminal enterprises pushing illegal drugs, and the legalisation of marijuana in many jurisdictions around the world has done nothing to reverse the drift towards stronger and riskier cultivars.

We cannot, therefore, end with bodily autonomy. A socialist society would destroy the criminal organisations and tobacco and booze conglomerates alike by legalising drugs and socialising production.

But socialising production would entail deciding, also, what not to produce. The replacement of tobacco crops with something more useful, or even just more fun, would be a good start.

  1. . www.compactmag.com/article/british-liberty-goes-up-in-smoke.↩︎