A ban on tobacco displays: evidence-based paternalism?

Don't smoke? Don't display.

By Babak Moussavi

Another day, another instance of state intervention.

From a social democratic perspective, there isn’t anything wrong with that by itself, as one needs to consider the specific use of it and the goal it is trying to achieve (as well as whether that policy might actually achieve that goal, of course). For a self-professed liberal-conservative government, however, it does seem to – yet again – suggest that all those years whacking the Labour government for promoting the ‘nanny state’ and for allowing government to get too big were a little bit hypocritical.

This time, however, we have something rather special: a public health intervention, that actually seems to be based on evidence! A ban on displays of tobacco products in big shops comes into force today (with the ban extending to all shops in the next three years). This may seem like another cosmetic change with indeterminate effects, which is how many people may have seen changing of the criteria for health warning signs on tobacco packaging itself. But this time it actually appears to have public health benefits, in that, in the instances in which such a policy has been enacted (in particular, Canada), there appears to have been a marked decrease in tobacco consumed. According to Professor David Hammond:

“the number of cigarettes per day reported by both youth and adult smokers was significantly lower after display bans were implemented. These differences remained significant after statistically adjusting for changes in cigarette price, which are strongly associated with smoking behaviour.”

People should certainly be free to consume tobacco if they wish; a free society would not dictate otherwise (although it strikes me as slightly arbitrary that alcohol and tobacco are legal, whereas some other, possibly softer, drugs are not). But the chief negative externality of smoking has already been acted against, in the form of public smoking bans, which the previous Labour government introduced. Under the liberal Harm Principle, that seems uncontroversial: scientific studies showed that inhaling others’ smoke was detrimental for one’s health, so the traditional liberal does possess a strong argument in favour of a ban.

This new scheme is more contentious though. If we concede that the effects of such a ban are a given – in that it does deter people from purchasing tobacco products – is this end alone a good enough justification for the policy? As mentioned above, the social democrat can get round the problem by pointing to the ‘good’ end in itself: less tobacco consumed means less strain on healthcare resources, and probably a healthier (and less addicted) society.

The liberal and the conservative have to worry about the means however. This is, after all, an instance of paternalism: state intervention to promote what is good for the individual. As we saw with the internet-surveillance idea, the Conservatives no longer seem too fussed about this (though the Lib Dems have threatened to rebel). But as for the liberals (not necessarily the Lib Dems, which is a party with more than one ideological wing) in the coalition, if they stick to their ideological guns that they did not tire from touting when in opposition, would have to believe that this in some way corrects a market failure, or prevents third-party harm. I am not sure how it does either. I don’t think the government does either.

But that may not be such a problem: the role of government is now much more of a pragmatic exercise in management than it once was. As Sam Bright pointed out, the game of ideological convictions is “for chumps”. But one can’t have it both ways. Andrew Lansley blindly held to the view that ‘competition’ would by necessity improve the NHS, just as ‘privatisation’ must have improved other public services. Similarly, and as mentioned before, many members of the current government criticised their predecessors for advocating the nanny state.

Ideological convictions, it seems, can be expedient.

  1. I think you make a valid point about evidence-based paternalism is America, but this is a very touchy subject. As you mentioned, they do make a good point about second-hand smoking, so I’m with them on this one. I heard one about banning smoking in your car, now that’s outrageous…

    • Thanks for the comment.

      Why do you mention America though? Presumably you mean the UK, as that’s the country I was referring to?

      Do you think people should be allowed to smoke in their car when there are children inside too? And if so, how is this different to banning smoking in public places, given that the justification is the same (namely, that second-hand smoke is dangerous)?

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