Iain Murray: The ban on tobacco ads sees UK liberty go to pot

The imminent ban on cigarette advertising is welcomed by many and championed by government, but it’s illogical, unfounded and an erosion of liberty, says Iain Murray

So it’s going to happen at last. After years of muttering and threatening, the politicians have finally got round to banning cigarette advertising.

A bill supported by the Government is destined to become law and when that happens we shall see no more of the advertising industry’s witty and ingenious attempts to promote brands without being able to say much, if anything, about them. No one will miss cigarette advertising, the world will go on just as before, but in one respect we shall all be the poorer.

Now I know it’s unfashionable, possibly downright stupid, to draw something as grand and important as the erosion of liberty from the small and largely uncontested issue of tobacco advertising, but it’s there all the same. Of course, everyone knows that smoking is bad for you, just as everyone knows that a hundred and one other things are bad for you. Everyone knows, too, that smokers are liable to die prematurely, more often than not in grisly and painful circumstances, and so it follows that everything should be done to prevent such unnecessary suffering.

Or does it? There cannot be a smoker still alive who does not know that he or she is taking a risk. We all take risks. Every time we get in a car or cross the road we take a risk. Sometimes the risk is an inseparable and enjoyable part of the activity. Take the danger out of mountaineering, downhill skiing, or parachute jumping, and you take away much of the fun. But smoking, it is argued, is different.

Why? Because it is the product of large, multinational companies who make a profit. Cannabis, on the other hand, is a cottage industry in the hands of long-haired, peace-loving folk, men and women who could not be further removed from the malevolent, black-hatted industrialists who water the workers’ beer. Therefore, in the eyes of most of our legislators, cannabis is OK, and never mind the eccentric views of certain medical experts who argue that it is harmful. If cannabis is legalised – and there are those in Parliament in favour – it follows that it will be lawful to advertise its use. However, tobacco, which has always been legally produced and sold, is to be denied the right to such promotion. Where is the logic in that?

It’s a silly question. If there is one component lacking from this debate it is logic. For Alan Milburn, the Health Secretary, the issue is quite simple. “Advertising works, smoking kills,” he told the House of Commons. “Today we can begin to break that link. This bill will protect children, reduce smoking and so save lives.”

Yes, advertising works, but only up to a point. It’s good at generating brand loyalty, it may persuade people to try new brands, but it’s not much good at making people buy things they don’t want, or at any rate not more than once. Could Milburn say how many people began smoking because they saw cigarette ads? I think we know the answer to that one. Notice, too, how the argument has shifted to the emotive issue of protecting children. Everyone is in favour of protecting children, which is why the Health Secretary has stuck his flag in this particular patch of high moral ground. Once again, though, it would be interesting to know what evidence there is to show that children start smoking because they have seen advertisements for cigarettes. Strong anecdotal evidence suggests that youngsters take up their habit for a variety of reasons – they are introduced to it by others, they think it is an adult thing to do, and because they think it is a daring, cool thing to do. If, as the advocates of a ban on advertising say, the very existence of tobacco promotion creates a climate of acceptability and approval, it might be argued that that is just what is needed to put children off the whole idea.

Contrary to what Milburn says, there is much evidence to suggest that a ban on advertising will have no affect on consumption. Indeed, when cigarette ads were outlawed in Canada, consumption actually rose. And in countries such as the former Soviet Union, where there was no advertising, the population smoked like chimneys.

As for creating an atmosphere of acceptability, it is difficult to see how any amount of advertising could counter the effects of years of assiduously anathematising smokers. Forced to huddle in groups in the windy and wet streets outside offices, banned to the garden by dinner party hostesses, denied the solace of their addiction in public transport, and, if they are particularly unfortunate, having their food spat into by Evening Standard cinema critic Alexander Walker, who claims that is his wont in restaurants, they are surely more to be pitied than envied.

I gave up smoking years ago, I am not in the pay of the tobacco industry, and yet I am opposed to this petty and unnecessary restraint on commercial freedom. Liberty doesn’t disappear with a bang, it is taken away bit by bit during the night. On that morning when we wake up and find it gone, it will be too late. When they have passed the legislation, dusted their hands, and turned away, no doubt pleased with themselves, the politicians will have taken us yet another inch along the road to authoritarianism.

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