Smoke gets in your eyes

The very first episode of Mad Men is probably the best. Confronted with stacks of evidence that smoking may be quite bad for you, and a wave of government regulations that are about render the entire Lucky Strike marketing strategy completely useless, the executives of Sterling Cooper attempt to find ways to continue advertising cigarettes within an ever-tightening legislative framework.

It is suggested that they go down the route of promoting smoking as great for those who have a death wish but this is thrown out. Eventually, the classic “It’s Toasted” tagline is coined, making smoking Lucky Strikes appear not only wholesome, but homely as well.

The health lobby has, since the entirely fictitious events of 1960 in a New York ad agency, squarely and consistently focussed its efforts on forcing the hand of government to protect people from themselves.

Which is why it’s no surprise that the All Party Parliamentary Group on Smoking and Health wants to increase tobacco taxes again to “to fund reduction in smoking prevalence.”

Tory MP Bob Blackman tells us; “Smokers don’t just die early, they suffer many years of disease and disability before they do, putting pressure not just on the NHS, but additional disability and social care costs and reduced income tax. Every pound invested over the next five years could deliver £11 to the public purse.”

Getting over the fact that there’s even a group of MPs committed to eradicating the pastime of others, as you can be sure none of these joyless bores actually smoke, one cannot help but laugh at the audacity of such claims.

Firstly, smokers don’t necessarily die early. I remember my Granda enjoying a crafty fag well into his 80s when many of his non-smoking friends had already kicked the bucket. To make such a sweeping generalisation is to ignore the fact that many smokers live long and healthy lives, and that we have all met ones that do.

Secondly, smokers don’t actually cost the NHS anything. They pay for themselves, many times over. Ignoring the fact that the smokers getting lung cancer sits at just 16%, so the vast majority will not cost the NHS anything, in 2012 the cost of treating smoking related illnesses to the NHS was £6 billion. In that year alone the state raised £9.5 billion in tobacco duties. And £2.6 billion in VAT from the sale of cigarettes. So, in reality, smokers actually subsidise the treatment of non-smoking related diseases. I could die of lung cancer twice and still not have cost the NHS anything over what I’ve paid for in tobacco duties.

But the biggest fallacy being trotted out here is the logic behind it. For about 50 years the health puritans have been telling us that no-one will smoke in 20 years or so if they just kept on hectoring us through the tax system. Yet there have never been more smokers on this planet.

True, there are fewer young people starting smoking in the UK. There are fewer smokers in general at any time since the Great War. But people have the decision not to smoke themselves. I have never met one person who has quit because of taxation. Not one.

All we have ended up with is a regressive tax that disproportionally punishes people on lower incomes, the decimation of an industry that once employed hundreds of thousands of people in the UK and the strange prevalence of cigarettes in every smoking area in the country emerging from packets with foreign health warnings on them, smuggled across borders and sold at knock down prices.

Not that any of our APPG aficionados will have ever had first-hand experience of any of the consequences of their actions –  but for the people of Ballymena, where JTI Gallagher is due to close its doors, they are very real. They are also very real for the small shopkeepers who have to invest in bank-like security to guard their precious stock.

Instead our parliamentary friends are driven by an all-consuming desire to stub out the smallest pleasure in the lives of many people, despite the wholly negative consequences.

Smoke, or rather, ASH, is well and truly in their eyes.


Neil works in marketing for a large technology business and has been a Conservative member since 2005. In 2015 he stood for Parliament for the Belfast East constituency, notably achieving the party’s highest ever position there. Neil firmly believes that Northern Ireland’s problems are fed by unusually high levels of aspiration-draining state interference. Follow Neil on Twitter: @neil4ebelfast

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