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Coffey and cigarettes

Smokers have suffered enough

Artillery Row

“Do you smoke?” Lady Bracknell asked Jack Worthing in The Importance of Being Earnest.

“Well, yes. I must admit I smoke.”

“I am glad to hear it. A man should always have an occupation of some kind. There are far too many idle young men in London as it is.”

There was once a time when the UK was known as the country that didn’t go in for extremes, whether in politics, religion or anything else. Rather worryingly, this sense of balance seems to be under threat. The financial turmoil in London has overshadowed a case in point: the major row Health Secretary Therese Coffey walked into on Tuesday over the matter of smoking.

The aim in the long run is prohibition

At issue is her fairly obvious unhappiness with a government-commissioned report that appeared last June from the ex-CEO of Barnardo’s, Javed Khan, on how to tackle the weed. Among the progressive press, the Guardian furiously referred to a U-turn on public health from a minister who herself smoked and — horror of horrors — had “previously accepted hospitality from the tobacco industry”. She was further backed by a premier, herself a “longstanding sceptic about tobacco control”, who had appointed former tobacco lobbyists as Downing Street advisers. The implication was clear: we face a happy-go-lucky government that doesn’t give a damn about public health or the NHS, either out of simple callousness, because it is in the pocket of the tobacco lobby, or both.

Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. Admittedly, back in 2021 the government made it pretty clear what it wanted from Javed Khan’s report, having incautiously in 2019 promoted the idea of an England smoke-free by 2030. Khan obliged, despite heading his report an “independent review”: the list of consultees, from pressure group ASH to a senior lecturer in tobacco harm reduction, makes that clear. The sheer extremism of what Khan advocates, and Coffey now doubts, should give us pause however, and perhaps make us wonder who the extremists are now.

The licensing of tobacco retailers, presumably with the aim of issuing as few licences as possible, is the least of it. Prices must continue to rocket: duty-free fags must disappear completely, and there must be a continuing government-sponsored mass media campaign against tobacco and everything connected with it. To this must be added as many prohibitions as possible on smoking in particular places. To the existing ban affecting essentially any enclosed place other than the home, he demands that we add, for example, all outdoor spaces where children congregate, thus essentially penalising an activity not because it is substantially harmful to others, but because it might give nearby youngsters ideas that the government disapproves of. Think that over. In case you thought all this was just a rather gross nudge exercise, think again. The aim in the long run is prohibition, albeit by the back door: permanent annual rises of one year in the age at which you are allowed to buy tobacco, until we reach the Nirvana in which all sales are prohibited except to Methuselah.

We must all sign up to state-sponsored valetudinarianism

Interestingly enough, there is one word that doesn’t appear in the report (except in one case where it refers to people’s frightening temptation to relapse having quit): pleasure. To go back to Oscar Wilde, his reference to a cigarette as the “type of a perfect pleasure”, one that “is exquisite and leaves one unsatisfied” would one suspects be met by Javed Khan and his helpers, not with anger or even reasoned disagreement, but with blank incomprehension. As a member of the 21st century great and good, with an impeccable CV in local government and big charity management, Khan belongs to the caste of latter-day establishment puritans who see their job as directing ordinary people — for their own good, of course — to the aims of work, health and approved government amusement.

This is especially true of groups whose interests the report ostensibly goes out of its way to champion. Middle and upper-class smoking is already moribund, apart from a few obstinate diehards. Increasingly they do it more than anything out of a bloody-minded if commendable refusal to kowtow to imposed convention. Instead, the report is aimed directly at those remaining smokers: overwhelmingly the poor, the disorganised, the marginalised and those at the edges of society.

One’s natural reaction might be gentle indulgence and even sympathy for such people and their habits, accepting that health is not an absolute imperative and leaving it up to them to get on with their own lives despite the risks to themselves and others. As anyone who does not live in the urban middle-class bubble will know perfectly well, smoking is often one of the few relaxations available to the disadvantaged, helping them unwind and keep their life on an even keel.

This again is anathema to the new puritanism. Applying a particularly dreary variety of social determinism and combining it with the effortless social superiority that comes naturally to the new establishment, it sees these people as weak, put-upon victims who desperately need saving from themselves. They must be smartened-up and introduced to middle-class values of health and efficiency. (Indeed, at one point it has the cheek to say that they need saving from the impoverishment that smoking inflicts on them, having earlier in the report approved measures aimed specifically at raising the price of tobacco to make it as unaffordable as possible — but we’ll let that pass.) Whether we like it or not, we must all be signed up as soon as possible to the new value of state-sponsored valetudinarianism.

It is sometimes said that the NHS, and the idea of community-mandated healthiness for all, has replaced the established church as the new religion of England. If this is so, perhaps it is now time to look for a less fundamentalist version of that creed. If Therese Coffey demonstrates that unlike the zealots, she has a sense of proportion and an understanding of how real people live, then more power to her elbow. Whatever its financial incompetence, there are signs that at least in social policy this government may have some of the right ideas.

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