Picture credit: Justin Case/Getty
Artillery Row

An about-turn on tobacco

Prohibitionists are changing course on cigarettes, and Rishi stands alone

When the British government announced plans to stop anyone born after 2008 from ever buying tobacco last month, it was eager to stress that the UK would not be alone in passing such an eccentric law. The Department for Health and Social Care cited the “case study” of New Zealand which in January 2023 “became the first country in the world to introduce a restriction on the sale of tobacco to anyone born after a specified date”. It also mentioned similar legislation recently tabled in Malaysia. 

Incremental prohibition was meant to create a legacy for the ultra-progressive Jacinda Ardern who rode off into the sunset in January, but her Labour Party got battered in last month’s general election and the incoming government has other ideas. A three way coalition has been formed between the centre-right National Party, the “populist” New Zealand First Party and the liberal (in the uncorrupted sense) ACT Party. Having thrashed out an agreement, they have decided to repeal the generational tobacco ban.

The sinking lid of tobacco prohibition was always a bit of a sideshow in New Zealand because the Labour government had also passed legislation to remove nearly all the nicotine from cigarettes, thereby rendering them pointless and pushing smokers towards the black market. This was the real prohibition and it was due to take effect before the generational ban started to bite. However, the incoming government has agreed to repeal this as well, along with the bone-headed policy of closing 90 per cent of tobacco outlets. The new coalition is still going to ban disposable vapes, but the rest of Jacinda’s prohibitionist legacy looks dead in the water.

The only other country to have seriously considered the idea of very slowly prohibiting tobacco sales is also having a rethink. When the Malaysian government tabled the Control of Smoking Products for Public Health Bill last year, it contained a clause that would ban anyone born after 2007 from ever being allowed to buy cigarettes or vapes. Malaysia’s Attorney-General has repeatedly warned that this would be unconstitutional because it creates “unequal treatment before the law between a person born before January 1, 2007, and a person born on or after January 1, 2007”. The policy has now been taken out of the legislation.

This is a sign of things to come from Sunak if he presses on with this weird vanity project. There is no legal right to smoke in Britain, but there are laws against age discrimination and the whole point of the policy is to discriminate on the basis of age. Lawyers will be consulting the Equality Act and licking their lips. 

Meanwhile, Sunak stands alone. It is left to the Conservative Party in Britain to carry the torch of the New Zealand Labour Party.

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