Claire Fox

I have a basic human right to look at fag packets

Claire Fox says that plans to ‘denormalise’ smoking by removing cigarettes from display infantilises adults and imposes upon us a dubious official version of what is ‘normal’

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Claire Fox says that plans to ‘denormalise’ smoking by removing cigarettes from display infantilises adults and imposes upon us a dubious official version of what is ‘normal’

Has your personal life been ‘denormalised’ yet? Mine is about to be, and believe me it’s not pleasant. The health ministries in Scotland and Westminster have just announced plans to make a perfectly legal habit seem as abnormal as possible. The SNP’s Public Health Minister Shona Robinson, quickly followed by England’s own health secretary Alan Johnson, tells us that public displays of cigarettes are hindering official ‘efforts to denormalise smoking’. Apparently, being able to see the rows of cigarette packets that are a familiar sight in every corner shop and garage in the country makes smoking seem like a normal part of life. And that just won’t do.

The problem for our great leaders is that notwithstanding their best efforts, smoking is a normal part of millions of people’s lives. What a nuisance — 25 per cent of the adult population just won’t conform. Despite being bludgeoned with gory details of the health risks and being evicted into the cold and rain, they keep puffing away. Maybe further humiliation will make them feel even more like deviant pariahs. Smokers will now have to purchase their illicit weed furtively under the counter, reminiscent of the days when backstreet shops used to sell porn and condoms. A perfectly everyday, innocent transaction will now become embarrassing and hence, ‘de-normal’.

I don’t expect anyone to get overexcited by the detail of the new ‘point of sale’ restrictions, which seem largely silly gestures rather than serious proposals. Whether it’s not being able to see the variety of brands and prices behind the counter or the proposed ban on vending machines, these plans may inconvenience smokers — they’ll certainly cause a loss of business for cornershop retailers — but they’re hardly life or death changes. Meanwhile, the plan to prohibit the sale of packets of ten is just plain daft; as others have noted, you wouldn’t try to cut chocolate consumption by only selling supersize bars. Yes, I concede, these measures are fairly petty and trivial. However, more serious and not a little sinister is when politicians start legislating to impose their version of normal on us all. Bet I can guess what a life lived according to government approval looks like. Mr & Mrs Normal Citizen will: count their units, eat their greens and recycle (and cycle) with gusto — meet the modern-day Young Pioneers.

One good thing about this relentless war on tobacco is that it makes a mockery of the original arguments for the smoking ban. That law, we were assured, was certainly not about the government interfering in individuals’ choices. Instead we were subject to the loudly touted but less convincingly proven pseudo-scientific ‘evidence’ that passive smoking caused harm to others. Politicians conceded that the state had no jurisdiction over people taking risks with our own health; the ban was solely to protect hapless non-smokers in the pub, club or bar. Now no such spurious explanations are given. Even zealots cannot make a case for linking vending machines to second-hand smoke. This is explicitly about making smokers stop smoking (and to reach the government’s target of reducing the smoking rate to 21 per cent by 2010).

Of course, this is not posed as a coercive measure to force the hardcore to go against their choice to smoke. Rather it’s official help for us to do what we all are supposed to agree is in our best interest. Robinson explained to the Scottish parliament that ‘displays stimulate impulse purchases among those not intending to buy cigarettes and, importantly, among smokers who are trying to give up’. Stella Duffy, chief executive of the anti-smoking campaign ASH, tells us, ‘Putting cigarettes out of sight will support smokers who are trying to quit’. How nice — these caring Samaritans are just trying to protect muddled smokers from their own impulses and weak wills.

The problem with this outlook is that it flies in the face of the very basis of a free democratic society. It undermines the idea that people are self-determining subjects. Instead we are posited as impressionable, prey to addictions, incapable of resisting advertising, compelled to act by the mere glimpse of a few fag packets. The serious implications of infantilising adults in this way were spelt out by none other than freedom’s champion John Stuart Mill 150 years ago. In one of the less fashionable sections of On Liberty, Mill wrote about the regulation of ‘beer and spirit houses’. He classed drinking as an individual act (as indeed smoking is), ‘for right or wrong’, and argued that along with religion, opinion and other ‘experiments in living’, it should be ‘outside’ the scope of the law. He pointedly described attempts at making alcohol ‘more difficult to access’ and ‘diminishing the occasions of temptation’ as ‘suited only to a state of society in which the labouring classes are avowedly treated as children or savages’.

Speaking of children and savages, it is not surprising that one of the 21st-century excuses for ‘diminishing temptation’ is the protection of the young. Whenever excessive regulation is on the horizon, you can guarantee our kids will be wheeled out as a battering ram against adult opposition. Alan Johnson claims that because ‘you can’t have any control over the age of the person’ buying cigarettes from a vending machine, they should be scrapped (even though the law already prohibits those under 18 from pubs that host vending machines). He claims that younger people ‘are more influenced by advertising’. That will explain the popularity of cannabis, then, all those billboards and TV ads. Finally, packets of ten are popular with non-wage-earning teenagers. But even with falling educational standards, the average 15-year-old can calculate that buying a packet of ten every two days can be replaced by buying a packet of 20 every four days.

What’s more, it doesn’t take an expert in child psychology to surmise that turning cigarettes into an under-the-counter purchase will most likely make them even more glamorous to your average rebellious teen. When politicians scaremonger about the alarming recent increase in numbers of underage smokers, they fail to acknowledge that this coincides with the most intensive anti-smoking drive ever known. Might there be a lesson in this?

Of course, coming up with rational objections to these illiberal measures misses the point. As the use of that ugly word ‘denormalising’ makes clear, this legislation is less concerned with enforceable policy than in sending messages about what constitutes normal, acceptable behaviour. Ms Robinson explained her legislation as an attempt ‘to shift cultural perceptions of smoking’. In other words, this is law used as propaganda. But all is not lost — in England at least. The proposals are only going out for consultation this month, so we can all have our say. Oh sorry. The Secretary of State for Health has already gone on Andrew Marr’s TV couch pre-consultation and declared that he supports the Scottish bans. Presumably anyone consulted who dares express ‘denormalised’ views will be ignored. Let’s bombard him anyway. For those many of us still keen to embrace Mill’s ‘experiments in living’, and to normalise a freedom, it really is time to draw the line here.