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Artillery Row

Osborne’s joyless crusade

Are times not hard enough already?

Former Chancellor George Osborne told the Times Health Commission this week that the UK should follow New Zealand in increasing the smoking age each year until future generations are prohibited from enjoying a cigarette. He didn’t stop there. Osborne also urged the government to increase the remit of the sugar tax, that he introduced in 2016, to cover fruit juice, milkshakes, biscuits and cakes.

“You basically phase it out. Of course you’re going to have lots of problems with illegal smoking, but you have lots of problems with other illegal activities,” Osborne said on the tobacco ban proposal  “It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try and ban them and police them and make it less readily available. I thought that was a compelling public health intervention.”

To use the language of our joy-deprived youth, Osborne’s sentiment is deeply problematic.

Rather oddly for a history graduate, what Osborne has failed to grasp is how historically useless prohibition has been. Tragic tales from the Opium Wars, alcohol prohibition and the perpetual war on drugs has inundated us with knowledge of how disastrously ineffective attempts to ban vices out of existence can be. These three periods of prohibition — in addition to countless others — achieved little more than the imprisonment of millions at needless expense and the creation of lucrative and violent black markets.

Even a cursory glance at the arts could give our misinformed crusader a sense of his battle ahead. Across the land, Netflix recommendations are lined with anti-prohibitionist classics such as The Untouchables, Traffic and Trainspotting. Unless Osborne is planning on going into film production with Peter Hitchens, the canon of titles celebrating prohibition is set to remain scant.

If Osborne gets his way and Sunak’s government does mimic Kiwi prohibition, the results will likely cohere with history. Even with our current stringent regulations, Britain’s illicit tobacco trade continues to boom. In the period April 2021 — March 2022, 1.35 billion cigarettes were seized by authorities. Despite this, frugal smokers across the UK still indulge in cheap under-the-counter fags, to be precise, over 30 billion of them.

If grim historical precedent doesn’t deter Osborne and his droogs, perhaps the pernicious effects of sin taxes will. Increasing the price of products such as fast food, sugary drinks, alcohol and tobacco always hit society’s most vulnerable the hardest.

A glaring example of this trend was seen on the home turf. In 2018, minimum unit pricing (MUP) on alcohol was introduced in Scotland to combat the sale of cheap drink. This placed a floor price on the sale of alcohol, making it illegal to sell booze for less than 50p per unit. The measure, designed to curb problem drinking and alcohol-related harm, had predictable unintended consequences. Not only did MUP fail to tackle problem drinking, alcohol-related social issues stagnated or intensified as a result, but it also cost consumers £270 million and even drove the heaviest drinkers to cut back on food to afford their chosen drink.

The UK’s sugar tax has also proven to be catastrophically ineffective

The UK’s sugar tax has also proven to be catastrophically ineffective. Since the sugar tax arrived in 2018, consumers have lost over £1 billion and it has had no impact on obesity whatsoever, rendering the measure yet another punitive imposition on society’s poorest.

Leaving aside the philosophical argument for freedom of choice, surely someone with as much economic experience as Osborne appreciates that during tough times it would be cruel to hike prices?

Apparently not, and in fairness to Osborne, he might even be preaching to the choir. Albeit separated by figureheads, it is his Conservative Party that has imposed grisly imagery on cigarette packets, exacted a UK-wide tax on sugary drinks, attempted to ban buy one, get one free deals on unhealthy food and most recently, outlawed Nitrous Oxide. Supposedly this government’s health strategy “emphasises personal responsibility”. A look in the mirror may be in order.

Osborne has been photographed smoking on a number of occasions, so perhaps he is practicing the sanctimony of many ex-smokers or if he still indulges, self-hating current smokers. By sneering at his moral inferiors, he might feel vindicated for his respiratory wrongdoings. Depressingly, however, Osborne’s comments represent the tip of the iceberg and his attitudes are growing among a cultural elite increasingly disconnected with the population at large. Disconnection alone would be tolerable, at least indifference implies a disinterest in meddling with peoples’ lives. This clearly is not enough and Osborne, the Times Health Commission clique and many others will not rest until they deem Brits to have been sufficiently infantilised.

If policymakers are serious about wanting to crack down on society’s woes, be it obesity, alcohol misuse or smoking, one-size-fits-all legislation is not the answer. Prohibition and market distortions will never usurp tailored, individualised help in being the most effective route to behavioural change.

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