Brian Monteith: More stigma on the way for smokers

The ban on tobacco displays at shop counters comes into effect today. Picture: TSPLThe ban on tobacco displays at shop counters comes into effect today. Picture: TSPL
The ban on tobacco displays at shop counters comes into effect today. Picture: TSPL
POLITICIANS want all tobacco lovers to be stigmatised, but bans just fan rebellious flames, writes Brian Monteith

Today, if you go into the larger shops that sell tobacco north of the Border you might notice something different, for today is the day when the Scottish Government’s ban on tobacco displays behind the counter begins. It is happening first in the larger stores and supermarkets, then eventually in the small corner shops and grocers.

With no compelling evidence that it will make any difference to young people taking up smoking – lack of display never stopped anyone who wanted to from taking up illegal drugs – the latest ban is a further attempt to make smokers seem abnormal and make them out to be shady, marginalised and living on the edge of society.

SEE ALSO: Smoking in cars ban proposal to be put to MSPs

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From now on, it will be easier to walk into a newsagent and survey pornographic magazines or visit Ann Summers and handle sex aids that would previously have been considered embarrassing, than buying tobacco. But it is smokers that our politicians now wish to stigmatise as deviant – not that they would ever use such a politically incorrect word, of course.

Let me assure readers that this latest ban will be considered by its advocates a complete and utter success; just like all the others before it. Even when it fails to make any discernible impact on the smoking rates of adults or young people there will, nevertheless, be a number of research papers telling us that it has worked – but that more research and indeed more bans are still required.

The undeniable fact is that smoking rates have been falling since the 1960s – long before the recent bans on advertising and smoking in “public” places were introduced – but the rate of decline in smoking levels is slowing at an inverse ratio to the increase in government spending on tobacco control.

The more the state lavishes on tobacco police and false-charity lobbyists, and the more it bans anything to do with selling or consuming tobacco, so the law of diminishing returns kicks in and the state creates its own counter-culture and highly visible form of rebellion especially attractive to young people – smoking outdoors.

Today’s ban will not be the end of it. There is far more planned, for the tobacco-haters will not rest until there are so few smokers that they feel they can then be honest with us and actually advocate outright prohibition.

And while those who don’t smoke – the majority of us – might not care, you only need to look at the professional journals and internet sites to see that what has been introduced for tobacco is already being proposed for alcohol, sugary drinks, salt and fats, although the “experts” cannot make up their minds if butter or margarine is this month’s bad food.

I don’t need to look far to point to the onward march of the lifestyle bullies, for David Cameron is, right now, considering what will go into the Queen’s Speech, the UK government’s legislative programme, to be presented to Parliament on 8 May. A battle royal has broken out between two of the Prime Minister’s health ministers who are at odds over more smoking bans.

The junior minister for public health in England, Anna Soubry, has made it clear that despite the government not having announced the result of its consultation on the introduction of plain packaging, she is already fully in support of the idea. Rather like an arrogant dignitary giving her favourite football team the cup final trophy without the match having been played, Soubry’s approach suggests the consultation was an inconvenience and anything minor, like hundreds of thousands of public objections, will not get in her way.

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There is no evidence to show that plain packaging will make the difference to the take-up of smoking by young people that its adherents claim – just like displaying tobacco, no-one who ever wanted illegal drugs was ever put off by the fact that they have no fancy packaging – or that they might have been transported in condoms inside a drug “mule”.

Smoking is just not going to go away, and bizarrely our politicians are actually making tobacco the cheapest and easiest way for young people to make that rite of passage and express their rebelliousness against authority.

Not content with upsetting her health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, who is apparently unconvinced about plain packaging, or the Prime Minister, who is presumably waiting for more focus group reports before making a move, Soubry has gone further still, telling a local government conference that she is also behind a ban on smoking in cars where children are present.

This is an attempt to up the ante in the game of poker Soubry is playing over the Queen’s Speech, for the tobacco control lobbyists fear Cameron will not allow the plain packaging move into the legislation this year. The problem is that next year is too close to the general election for such a controversial idea to be introduced.

By adding a further demand – one already mooted by a number of Labour MPs and the BMA (although it famously had to retract its press release for publishing false evidence) – Soubry and the anti-tobacco lobby hope to create a trade-off where they get something; anything, to keep the momentum towards making smoking abnormal.

Soubry is playing for high stakes; for the taxpayer-funded anti-tobacco lobbyists and Big Pharma (that has a huge interest in its commercial tobacco cessation products that it sells to the NHS and markets to the public) are, together, now more powerful than Big Tobacco.

If legislation was limited to England, the ideas in it, if they went further than laws here, would undoubtedly be adopted and introduced by the SNP, for it of all parties has been more rabidly anti-smoking than any other, often trying to push the invasion into personal lifestyles well before Labour or Tory politicians had taken their brave pills.

Anna Soubry is no Margaret Thatcher; she left the Conservatives for the SDP in the early 80s and only rejoined after 2001. She is more like Edwina Currie on speed; opinionated but knowing that making a headline can push the Prime Minister in a certain direction. It remains to be seen if, like Currie, she gets egg all over her face, or the Prime Minster’s.