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Message from our director

Simon-Clark-Portrait.jpgSmokers are voters too.

We’re not stupid. We know smoking and smokers’ rights aren’t the most important issues in the world and, come the election, it’s natural that voters will focus on a combination of issues – the economy, education, immigration, defence, the NHS and so forth.

Nevertheless the constant harassment of adults who choose to smoke tobacco, a legal product that generates over £10 billion a year in taxation alone (far outweighing the alleged cost of treating smoking-related diseases, estimated at £2.7 billion), is an issue politicians would be wise not to ignore.

The smoking ban, for example, has affected many people’s lives and continues to do so. Many smokers, especially older ones, have stopped going to pubs. Today they smoke and drink at home, often on their own. For many pubs the smoking ban was the final straw. Since the ban was introduced thousands have closed, many in the first year. That has not only damaged many people's social lives, it has cost thousands of jobs.

Meanwhile successive governments (Labour and the Conservative-Lib Dem Coalition) banned cigarette vending machines, introduced a tobacco display ban and prohibited smoking in private vehicles when children are present. (I'm not condoning that practise btw but very few people still do it and legislation was gesture politics.).

Next year, following a recent vote in parliament, cigarettes will be sold in standardised or “plain” packaging. At the same time, as a result of the EU’s revised Tobacco Products Directive, there will be larger health warnings on the front and back of cigarette packets and, eventually, the complete prohibition of menthol cigarettes.

These measures not only infantilise every adult, there’s no evidence they will stop children smoking. Instead they’re designed to “denormalise” smoking and, by extension, the consumer in the hope that smokers will be forced to stop or shamed into quitting. Inevitably the public health juggernaut will rumble on and we all know where it’s heading. Prohibition by a thousand cuts.

Some people (even smokers) have said “So what?” to some of these measures but having acquired a taste for legislation most politicians don't seem to know when to stop. This is not just about tobacco. Sugary drinks, convenience food and alcohol are already being lined up for similar treatment.

As we approach the 2015 General Election Forest wouldn’t dream of telling anyone who to vote for. We pride ourselves on the fact that our supporters come from all walks of life and support a variety of parties across the political spectrum. All we can do is provide some information and invite you to make up your own minds. Some may choose not to vote at all.

Sadly it’s almost impossible to pick a political party that doesn’t support excessive regulation of one sort or another.

Labour is the party that introduced the smoking ban in Scotland, then England and Wales. The last Labour government banned tobacco vending machines and was also responsible for the legislation that led to the tobacco display ban. Plain packaging and the ban on smoking in cars with children are both the result of Labour pressure. If the party is elected back into government Labour has vowed to introduce a tobacco levy that will almost certainly be passed on to the consumer. Tobacco will become even more expensive and it doesn’t take a genius to predict the outcome – a flourishing black market driven by price.

The Conservatives haven’t specified which tobacco control policies they will introduce next but consider what a Conservative-led government did in the last parliament. First, they went ahead and introduced Labour’s tobacco display ban even though they opposed it in opposition. Under pressure from Labour they introduced legislation banning smoking in cars with children, and in the final weeks of the parliament they pushed through regulations on plain packaging. None of these policies was in the 2010 Conservative manifesto.

As a party the Lib Dems did nothing to oppose plain packaging, or the display ban, or the prohibition of smoking in private vehicles. Were we surprised? No. Sadly, with the exception of one or two MPs, there’s nothing liberal about the Liberal Democrats.

In Scotland the SNP is as anti-smoking as any other party. When Nicola Sturgeon was the shadow minister for health in 2002 she introduced a Bill to ban tobacco advertising and sponsorship in Scotland ahead of the rest of the UK. Don’t expect any respite if the party forms a “progressive” alliance with Labour in Westminster. It could get a whole lot worse.

Ukip is the exception when it comes to tobacco but that’s largely due to the influence of Nigel Farage. If Farage fails to win a seat in parliament and steps down as party leader it’s entirely feasible his successor will quietly drop Ukip’s opposition to the smoking ban and other tobacco control policies. It’s happened before and it could happen again.

Which leaves us with individual candidates. If you’re a smoker or a tolerant non-smoker and you’re opposed to excessive regulations the following may be of interest:

  • In October 2010 MPs voted on a Ten-Minute Rule Bill to relax the smoking ban. The Bill was defeated by 142 votes to 87 (77 Conservative, 4 Labour, 3 Lib Dems, 3 DUP). Names here.
     
  • In February 2014 MPs voted in favour of a Lords amendment to the Children & Families Bill giving ministers the power to ban smoking in private vehicles with children present. The vote passed by 375 to 106 (102 Conservatives, 4 Lib Dems). Names here.
     
  • In February 2015 MPs voted in favour of regulations to outlaw smoking in cars with children present in England from 1 October, 2015. The vote passed by 343 to 74 (63 Conservative, 5 Labour, 3 Lib Dems, 2 Ukip). Names here.
     
  • In March 2015 MPs voted on regulations to introduce standardised packaging of tobacco: 113 voted against (104 Conservatives, three Labour, two Liberal Dems, both Ukip MPs, and two members of the Democratic Unionist Party), 367 voted in favour. Names here.

    Note: some MPs have retired and are not standing for re-election.

Finally, writing on my personal blog Taking Liberties, I am currently highlighting a number of seats where the incumbent candidate has supported anti-tobacco policies or where a leading candidate has expressed opposition to policies such as the smoking ban or plain packaging. There’s no such thing as a “smoker-friendly” candidate but there are candidates who are less likely to support excessive regulations that denormalise a legal product and stigmatise the consumer.

Enjoy what remains of the election campaign and vote wisely!

Simon Clark
Director, Forest 
April 2015

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