News & Comment

Prohibition: A bad idea that won't go away

Thu 14th May, 2020

Days before the ban on menthol cigarettes comes into force, a new paper from the smokers’ group Forest challenges the UK’s drift towards “creeping prohibition”.

Rob Lyons, author of ‘Prohibition: A bad idea that won’t go away’, argues:

• 19th century campaigns against alcohol were in favour of temperance – that is, abstinence as a moral choice for self-improvement – rather than bans based on the assumption that governments know what is best for us.

• Prohibition of alcohol in the United States in the 1920s created a black market that enriched mobsters and encouraged law-breaking, bribery and corruption.

• Creeping prohibition is now a feature of the war on tobacco. Ten packs, smaller pouches of hand-rolled tobacco, flavoured rolling tobacco and menthol-flavoured cigarettes have all been banned. Taxation has also been used as a weapon to effectively prohibit the poor from smoking.

• Regulations applied to tobacco are increasingly being used as a template for any product considered ‘unhealthy’ by health campaigners.

• Banning products will not put an end to demand. The major beneficiaries of the ban on menthol cigarettes will be criminal gangs and illicit traders. Victims will include law-abiding consumers and legitimate retailers.

• The health risks associated with smoking are well known. In a free society adults must be allowed to make the ‘wrong’ choices. As long as we are not harming other people it is not for government to restrict our choices without very good reason.

• Prohibition robs adults of choice and, in an important sense, robs us of our humanity as well. Even those with little interest in the rights of smokers to choose what flavour of cigarette they smoke should be worried. After ten packs, flavoured rolling tobacco and menthol cigarettes, what will governments decide to ban next?

According to Lyons:

“Like every example of prohibition in the past, the ban on menthol cigarettes is a restriction of our liberties. It will fuel the black market and potentially criminalise people who have previously enjoyed their favourite brands without fuss. And for all the problems it will create, it will have little or no effect on smoking rates. It is a terrible policy.”

Simon Clark, director of Forest, said:

“Britain is sleepwalking to prohibition. Policies such as the display ban and plain packaging have tried to denormalise tobacco but the product has always been available to adults who choose to smoke.

“Now we’re seeing the elimination of products that account for almost a quarter of all cigarettes sold in the UK. Adults are being treated like children and consumer choice is being eradicated in pursuit of a mythical smoke free utopia.”

‘Prohibition: A bad idea that won’t go away’ is available here.

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