An interview with Christopher Snowdon

Ben Kelly questions Christopher Snowdon on the erosion of liberty, the public health lobby, the demonisation of E-cigs and more…

Christopher Snowdon is an author, freelance journalist and the Director of Lifestyle Economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs. He is a vocal opponent of “lifestyle regulation” and a prominent critic of the public health lobby. Follow him on Twitter here, and be sure to check out his excellent blog Velvet Glove, Iron Fist. 

There has been an increasingly aggressive and sustained attack on civil liberties in recent decades, at the same time there seems to be a resurgent prohibitive movement in the realm of public health, do you think these are – in some sense – linked?  Is it simply part of the prevailing spirit of the age: statism, the government as nanny, the attacks on freedom of speech on campus and the apparent disregard for liberty as unimportant or trivial?

The attack on free speech and the attack on lifestyle freedoms are connected insofar as they are both products of a puritanical outlook. The mindset is that nobody should hear impure views or consume impure products – a clean mind and a clean body. This is creepy, to say the least.

We live in an era of outraged minorities and pressure group politics. Once people see government using the law to appease vociferous special interest groups, everybody wants a piece of the action. Had your feelings hurt by unkind words on social media? We’ve got a law for that. Don’t like the smell of tobacco smoke? We’ve got a law for that. The solution is to have a limited government that encourages you to grow some skin and associate with like-minded people rather than insist the whole country changes to suit your preferences. Unfortunately, there is a great temptation for people to see one group get special privileges and demand special privileges for themselves.  

Some have suggested that recent surveys showing that a significant number of the “millennial” generation have individualistic, liberal views, offers some hope of a change in attitude and a reason to be optimistic. Do you agree?

That’s what people said of the young generation in the 1960s and how did that work out? People with individualistic, liberal views don’t tend to go into politics and most of those who do soon change their mind when they have the full apparatus of the state to play with. They certainly don’t go into ‘public health’.

Good point, if a bit disheartening! Arguing against lifestyle regulation in the face of a powerful “public health” lobbies, is a frustrating business, can we roll back the tide?

The best hope we have is that a centre-right government will get sick of giving taxpayers’ money to people who hate them. Take the money away from the ‘public health’ racket and watch it wither away. It’s not a movement, it’s an unproductive industry. A Select Committee needs to investigate it. Why are we funding political advocacy? Why are we paying for junk science? Why are we paying people six figure salaries to campaign for illiberal, ineffective laws that bear further costs on taxpayers? If a cost-benefit analysis was done by an independent economist the whole thing would be shut down tomorrow.

Right now, it’s all about sugar. Even Jamie Oliver is getting in on it now! “Sugar is the new tobacco” is a phrase I have been hearing lately, the campaign against sugar is gathering in strength, what ill effects do you foresee from possible state intervention in the sugar market?

We’re all smokers now, aren’t we? The interesting thing about the slippery slope is that people deny it exists when people make a reductio ad absurdum argument like ‘if you tax cigarettes, where do you stop? Are we going to tax sugar next?!’ But the next minute the same people are saying ‘sugar is the new tobacco, it needs to be taxed like cigarettes!’ An idea goes from being regarded as a silly scare story to being considered a serious policy without anybody seeming to notice the shift.

Likewise, the sudden switch from demonising saturated fat to demonising sugar seems to have taken place in the twinkling of an eye. If, as many people say, the evidence for the war on saturated fat was never that great, isn’t the obvious lesson to be sceptical about nutritional epidemiology rather than to jump on a bandwagon charging in the opposite direction, based on equally dubious evidence? Does hysteria have to be replaced by hysteria? South Park is starting to look like a fly on the wall documentary.

The evidence that economic interventions in the food supply are effective in improving health is basically non-existent. Advertising restrictions don’t make any difference. Sin taxes don’t make any difference. I don’t think the current government – or even a non-Corbyn Labour government – is dumb enough to try a sugar tax. Even political naifs can see that it’s regressive money-making scam.

E-cigs have been in the news again recently, and this is an area that really baffled me. When I first came across electronic cigarettes I immediately thought that it was a remarkable, and game changing technology. A safe and, crucially, a satisfying alternative to inhaling toxic smoke. Unfortunately, the public health lobby has seemed determined to curb the industry. There has been much fear mongering, attempts to smear e-cigs as potentially harmful, and moves to ban them from public spaces. Why, oh why is this? What’s it all about?

It seems very odd until you realise that a significant part of the ‘public health’ lobby is not particularly interested in health. Two things have happened in recent years to help the public identify the people who are genuinely interested in evidence and health, and those who are in the ‘public health’ industry because they have some other bee in their bonnet. The first is Twitter, which allows us to see these people as they really. Follow people like @SimonCapewell99 or @DrAseemMalhotra and ask yourself if you would put your life in their hands. The president of the UK Faculty of Public Health had to come off Twitter after he spent an evening in a ‘tired and emotional’ state abusing e-cigarette users a while ago. A lot of these people’s tweets are of the green ink variety. Twitter also shines a light on their politics which can generally be categorised as loony left.

The other thing is e-cigarettes, of course. It’s only fair to say that there are plenty of people in the ‘public health’ racket who really want to help people quit smoking and therefore support e-cigarettes. But there are also plenty of people who can’t bear to see people enjoying themselves and are instinctively opposed to free market solutions to anything. If you hear anyone from a ‘public health’ group using zombie arguments about e-cigarettes acting as a gateway to smoking or being an invention of the tobacco industry or whatever, there are almost certainly in the latter camp.

People should be free to vape in the same way as people should be free to smoke. I obviously don’t think it’s the government’s business either way because I’m a liberal, but if you do think it’s the government’s business to make people healthier and you oppose e-cigarettes you are either a fool or a knave.

The recent public health England report on E-cigs seemed to bring a slight change in rhetoric, but why do you think they are intent on medicalising them by encouraging them to be prescribed, rather than allowing the market to thrive?

If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. They understand medicines. They don’t understand the market. To be fair to the authors of the PHE report, they acknowledge some of the problems of medical regulation for e-cigarettes. E-cig manufacturers have been able to have their products regulated as medicinal devices for the last five years but almost none of them have done so, partly because they are NOT medicines but mainly because it’s incredibly expensive to put them through the tests. Only the tobacco industry and the pharmaceutical industry have the resources to do it.

Just a quick question about tax. You have argued for steep cuts (up to 50%) in duty on tobacco, alcohol and fuel. To me, it seems utterly obvious that such cuts would be a massive boost to our economy, especially the cut in fuel. It’s surely a no-brainer… Why then, does this suggestion seem so outlandish, in terms of the fact that no political party would ever adopt such a policy?

The fall in oil prices was probably the main reason for a semblance of a feel good factor returning before the election. Inflation fell, transport became cheaper, people had more money in their pockets, the economy grew. The government could have produced much the same effect by slashing fuel duty years ago. Obviously the government wants the revenue, but the benefits of growth would at least partially offset the loss of revenue. In any case, the government wouldn’t need so much revenue if it wasn’t squandering billions on insane green energy projects, like paying middle class homeowners vastly more than the market price for solar power.

As for tobacco and alcohol taxes. I never get tired of pointing out that Britain pays 40 per cent of the EU’s entire alcohol duty bill. Our tobacco taxes are so extortionate that it’s a wonder anybody buys cigarettes in the UK. You can go to Greece and stock up on cigarettes and the savings you make will pay for the holiday. The peak of the Laffer curve has now been passed with tobacco duty. It is a fact that every increase now leads to less revenue coming in. Let’s slash alcohol and tobacco duty and let Europeans come over here to stock up for a change.

The pub industry is another subject your frequently cover, I read with interest a recent blog post in which you criticised CAMRA so felt compelled to ask, what do you think are the main causes of pub closures?

Clearly, people are not going to the pub as much as they once did. Some of that is due to social changes – people have nicer homes to live in and more leisure options, but those changes have been happening gradually for 150 years. The collapse of the pub trade in the last eight years has been exceptional and the single biggest reason for it has been the smoking ban. Why would people pay £3 or £4 for a pint to drink on the street? Smoking bans have damaged the hospitality industry in every country that has tried them – or, at least, in every country that has enforced them. Add the alcohol duty escalator, the VAT rise and the recession into the mix and you have a recipe for disaster.

And it’s not over yet. The ‘living wage’ plus CAMRA’s idiotic recommendations, which are now law, will deliver the coup de grace to more pubs. When you consider that quite a few pubs are now banning vaping and supporting minimum pricing, you wonder if they even deserve to survive.

What are your policy suggestions for boosting the industry?

I wrote all about pub closures in a report for the IEA last year: Closing Time: Who’s killing the British pub? 

Finally, to return to “public health”, what do you think the anti-tobacco, anti-booze, anti-fun lobby will go after next, once they have gained a degree of success with their current aims, given their tendency to always find a new target?

In a country where you have a pressure group called Action on Sugar – and people take it seriously – anything is possible. Even I didn’t predict that fruit juice would come under fire. You’d think that they would have enough on their plates at the moment with the war on tobacco, the war on alcohol, the war on vaping, the war on sugar, the war on fat, the war on salt and the war on fizzy drinks, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see a bigger focus on energy drinks, gambling and perhaps meat, especially red meat, in the years ahead. Coffee has managed to fly under the radar for a good few years so we could be due a war on caffeine.

They’ll have to pry my red meat out of my cold, dead colon! Ahem… One last thing, could you tell us about your latest book?

 You can download my latest book, Selfishness, Greed and Capitalism – which attempts to correct many of the economic myths that prevail in public discourse and which are often promoted in schools and universities – for free here


We’d like to thank Christopher Snowdon for his time, and for all his hard work arguing for liberty and  freedom of choice! We urge our readers to buy one (or all) of his excellent books:

Velvet Glove, Iron Fist: A History of Anti-Smoking

The Spirit Level Delusion

The Art of Suppression: Pleasure, Panic and Prohibition since 1800