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Artillery Row

It’s the only one for me, nicotine

Once again, public health fanaticism is being prioritised over simple pleasures

The word free still existed in Newspeak, but it could only be used in such statements as ‘This dog is free from lice’ or ‘This field is free from weeds’. It could not be used in its old sense of ‘politically free’ or ‘intellectually free’ since political and intellectual freedom no longer existed even as concepts, and were therefore of necessity nameless.

— George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

My name is Christopher and I am a nicotine addict. My addiction has not destroyed any relationships. It has not negatively impacted my work. I have never woken up in a ditch as a result of it. It has not even affected my health, touch wood, and if it ever does, that will be my problem. I smoked for 20 years and enjoyed every single cigarette. I’ve vaped for 13 years and enjoy that just as much. Getting a little tetchy when I can’t access nicotine is a small price to pay for the pleasure of using nicotine. In the absence of government intervention, there would rarely be a situation in which I couldn’t access nicotine, so I pin that small downside on the government. Unlike the government, nicotine has never taken away my freedom.

I mention this because the voice of the satisfied customer has been absent from the debate about smoking this week. Instead we have had to endure the nauseating sight of nicotine-deprived prohibitionists presenting themselves as champions of liberty. Their logic is that smoking is so addictive that it restricts freedom. They claim that smokers do not actually want to smoke, but were foolish enough to get hooked in childhood and are now unable to quit. And so, despite the evidence of your eyes and ears, it is the people who keep banning things who are standing up for freedom while libertarians support enslavement. 

This was the message of a slightly Orwellian editorial in The Times yesterday which explicitly described smoking as “enslavement” and described the right to smoke as “a fake freedom”. It was the message of Deborah Arnott, the CEO of the Department of Health’s sockpuppet pressure group Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), who said: “Smoking is not a free choice. It is an addiction.” And it was the message of public health minister Andrea Leadsom who told the House of Commons that “this is not about freedom to choose; it is about freedom from addiction.” The words ‘addiction’ and ‘addicted’ were mentioned 83 times in that parliamentary debate.

I have already conceded that giving up nicotine is more difficult than giving up cupcakes (although Chris van Tulleken may disagree). But the rhetoric around addiction this week has reached a different level. We have been told that smoking is not  only a difficult habit for some people to break, but is almost impossible, so much so that smokers “face a lifetime of addiction”, as Bob Blackman MP put it, and that while smokers might say that they want to purchase tobacco, they actually do not.

It is difficult to reconcile this with figures from the Office for National Statistics which show that 69 per cent of all the people in England who have ever smoked are now non-smokers. Andrea Leadsom is one of them. Despite claiming in her speech that people who take up smoking can look forward to “a life of addiction to nicotine”, she also mentioned that she gave up a 40-a-day habit when she was 21. Deborah Arnott is also an ex-smoker. She only gave up after she got the job at ASH. I suppose it wouldn’t have been a good look.

In a country where ex-smokers outnumber smokers by two to one, the idea that buying a pack of cigarettes condemns you to a lifetime of hopeless addiction seems suspect. The other claim deployed by the freedom-loving prohibitionists is equally dubious. They assert that virtually every smoker wishes they had never started and is desperate to quit. “Even smokers do not want to smoke”, according to the increasingly deranged Lord Bethell

This claim is based on survey evidence that should be taken with a pinch of salt because talk is cheap and social desirability bias leads people to express preferences that they may not sincerely hold. People say they want to do all sorts of things. On any given day, there are probably millions of people who say that they want to quit their job or end their relationship or emigrate, but the government doesn’t force them to do it. 

Nevertheless, even the survey evidence doesn’t support the claim that smokers are almost unanimous in wanting to quit. In the latest ONS survey, only 44.5 per cent said they intended to quit. When asked if they REALLY want to quit (the capital letters are in the survey question), this falls to 20 per cent – and even among this minority, most of them have no intention of quitting in the next three months. And when asked why they want to quit, the second most common answer (after “to improve my physical health”) is “to save money”. Since taxes make up around 85 per cent of the price of cigarettes, this is a rational response to government extortion rather than an admission that they hate smoking. 

In any case, people are not addicted to smoking per se but to nicotine. This was a distinction without much of a difference in the twentieth century but today we have nicotine patches, pouches, vapes and other low risk alternatives. If smokers have tried these and still prefer cigarettes, shisha or cigars, why shouldn’t we respect their choice? A government that was genuinely committed to helping smokers quit would encourage them to try some of these alternatives. Instead, it is going to put barriers in their way by taxing vape juice, restricting e-cigarette flavours and banning disposable vapes.

Anti-smoking legislation has traditionally been promoted with “think of the children” rhetoric. Advertising bans, tax hikes, plain packaging, display bans and much else were said to be necessary to protect kids from the almost supernatural powers of Big Tobacco. Everyone accepts that children cannot make informed choices, but that justification for paternalism has run out of road. Most people who start smoking these days do so when they are 18 or over, and the generational ban is a direct prohibition on adults buying tobacco. That requires a new argument and so it is now adults who are portrayed as being as helpless as children, desperate to be led to safety by wiser souls who know their true desires. Politicians and “public health” campaigners now believe that they can dismiss the revealed preferences of millions of people because they have a window into what Adam Smith called “the man within”. Thanks to this unique insight into our inner beings, they know that what we really want to do is the opposite of what we are actually doing and that our true preferences are remarkably similar to the preferences of Rishi Sunak and Chris Whitty. 

Once this premise is accepted, there is no limit to what the government can do “help” us realise our true selves and make us truly “free”, as Isaiah Berlin pointed out 55 years ago in Two Concepts of Liberty:

I may declare that they are actually aiming at what in their benighted state they consciously resist, because there exists within them an occult entity – their latent rational will, or their ‘true’ purpose – and that this entity, although it is belied by all that they overtly feel and do and say, is their ‘real’ self, of which the poor empirical self in space and time may know nothing or little; and that this inner spirit is the only self that deserves to have its wishes taken into account. Once I take this view, I am in a position to ignore the actual wishes of men or societies, to bully, oppress; torture them in the name, and on behalf, of their ‘real’ selves, in the secure knowledge that whatever is the true goal of man (happiness, performance of duty, wisdom, a just society, self-fulfilment) must be identical with his freedom – the free choice of his ‘true’, albeit often submerged and inarticulate, self.

Fake freedom indeed.

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