Brian Monteith: A vaping tax is just stupid '“ cannabis is where the money is

With Britons spending £2.6billion a year on cannabis, Brian Monteith reckons it would be better to legalise it and rake in the tax

With Britons spending £2.6billion a year on cannabis, Brian Monteith reckons it would be better to legalise it and rake in the tax. Picture: Getty
With Britons spending £2.6billion a year on cannabis, Brian Monteith reckons it would be better to legalise it and rake in the tax. Picture: Getty
With Britons spending £2.6billion a year on cannabis, Brian Monteith reckons it would be better to legalise it and rake in the tax. Picture: Getty

The month of August is called the silly season because of the reporting of light stories that would not normally be covered because they are often just silly nonsense. Last week new evidence was presented to suggest we need a new category known as the dumb idea season.

A leak from the Treasury ­suggests that in the search to meet the ­proposed £20 billion increase in NHS funding, there should be a new 5 per cent sales tax on e-cigarettes. It is believed that it could raise about £40 million annually for the Exchequer.

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This is about as dumb a policy as it is possible to conceive, especially coming from a government that is hell-bent on telling us how to live more miserable but healthier lives by avoiding tobacco and reducing our intake of alcohol, sugar, salt, meats and animal fats.

The number of people who use e-cigarettes, or vape, according to the Office of National Statistics, has risen from 3.7 per cent in 2014 to 5.5 per cent in 2017 – around 2.8 million people. There is, ­however some evidence that the uptake of vaping may be plateauing, when in public health terms it has been shown to be the most effective way of helping those smokers who wish to give up to do so.

Vaping is recognised by public health authorities to pose only a small fraction of the risk of smoking and is reckoned to have led to 20,000 people successfully quitting each year. It is a public health ­success story – personally I believe it has ­probably helped more people give up smoking than the smoking bans in enclosed public spaces which, despite all the claims of ­success have been failures.

Given that ­smoking is claimed as the greatest avoidable cause of death in Britain, then it must also be true that ­vaping has been responsible for saving the largest number of lives since it became commonplace.

So why would this government want to discourage people from vaping? Why make it more expensive and so encourage fewer people to use e-cigarettes or to take it up? Surely the huge savings in ­smoking related diseases are more than worth the relatively small sum of £40 million a tax might raise?

Worse still, like all “sin taxes” the amount will only ever go up in real terms.

Chris Snowdon, head of lifestyle economics at the Institute of ­Economic Affairs described it ­brilliantly as the equivalent of ­taxing cycling to fight obesity. It really is that daft. I look forward to seeing if this leaked idea ever sees the light of day, so we can see which politicians are willing to put their names to it and have their reputations ridiculed as a result.

There remains the problem, though, of how to raise the £20 ­billion. There is an alternative idea which I know some will say is equally as daft but which, I believe, has greater merit and offers far more honest, rational and beneficial ­outcomes. The idea is simple enough but will give any social interventionist ­cardiac arrest – legalise cannabis use and tax it.

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That man Chris Snowdon has done a study of what it could mean and it puts into proportion the ­proposal for a tax on vaping.

Snowdon has posed the obvious question; why tax e-cigarettes to raise only £40 million when you could legalise marijuana – that is already being consumed, but ­illegally – tax it and raise £690m?

Snowdon has estimated that 255 tonnes of cannabis is ­consumed in the UK at a cost of £2.6 ­billion yearly. In addition, the creation of legitimate employment in ­areas that are covered by the black ­market and illegal dealing would result in income from PAYE and NIC ­contributions. All told I would expect there is probably a billion pounds a year in public receipts.

It would be more honest because the consumption is already there but is driven underground to the benefit of organised crime. The police could focus on more serious crime and by taking cannabis out of the hands of criminal dealers and regulating it, it would actually be easier to control its ­supply to ­children than currently.

There is concern that cannabis consumption causes mental health problems but that surely misses the point. If consumption is already significant (and it is) and it does have an impact on mental health (and it probably does) then surely it is better to bring it out into the open and allow its supply to be regulated and those with problems to be treated?

The use of cannabis in the form of skunk, which is known to present more mental health risks, has grown, and this is why the number of cannabis-related mental health problems has increased by half while the number of cannabis users dropped between 2006 and 2014.

The growth of skunk was not because customers asked for it but because, rather than import ­cannabis, it is more often ­illegally grown under lights, and skunk is the favoured form.

As Snowdon argues, prohibition of alcohol in the United States meant that far riskier moonshine began to dominate the illegal market – to the cost of every consumer’s health – but once prohibition ended and alcohol production was regulated moonshine disappeared. The same could be true for cannabis.

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We continually hear from those in the NHS how mental health care is underfunded – so why not use ­cannabis consumption to contribute to any damage it causes?

Why tax vaping that is helping reduce the number of smokers when we could tax the existing but unseen cannabis market and bring it under beneficial control?