Friday, April 19, 2024

GUEST POST: No smoke without political economy

Anselm Anon argues that the Liberal Democrats are wrong to treat the tobacco debate as one simply about consumer choice.

The Tobacco and Vapes Bill would "make it an offence to sell tobacco products to anyone born after 1 January 2009". It passed its first reading on 16 April, supported by the five Liberal Democrat MPs who voted, including Ed Davey. 

Yet Lib Dems online have not been unanimous. They have presented some nuanced liberal responses, taking into account concerns for personal liberty, public health, differential laws for different age cohorts and the dangers of the black market in tobacco products. 

Sensible Lib Dems have taken different positions. Some, such as Linda Chambers and Ed Davey, support the bill. Others, including Caron Lindsay and Liberal England’s own Jonathan Calder, have expressed reservations. 

This discussion within the party has centred on consumer choice: 'Should people have the freedom to smoke?' But I wonder if this is a sufficient way for liberals frame the question of tobacco policy. 

This isn’t just a case of regulating consumption, but also of regulating production and distribution. In other words, ‘Should people have the freedom to produce and distribute tobacco?’ or even 'Should people be free from manipulation by the tobacco industry?' 

The latter question has in part been answered by controls on tobacco advertising, in the UK and worldwide. But the chemical effects of addiction remain, and some social cachet too. And the tobacco industry spends a great deal on political lobbying. 

In these terms, the question is less one of consumer choice, and more one of how much freedom we should allow wealthy companies to pursue a socially harmful activity. Tobacco is big business, and the tobacco industry has a poor record, not only on public health, but also on tax avoidance and the environment. The profits of tobacco are in part reinvested in lobbying legislators, in the UK and internationally.

I suggest that Lib Dem discussions of this topic are too focused on consumers, and not enough on considering the political economy of tobacco in the round. 

It is welcome that the Bill undermines the tobacco industry. This is in sympathy with current party policy, which seeks "a new levy on tobacco companies to contribute to the costs of healthcare and smoking cessation services". 

But I’d like to see the Lib Dems address the issue more systematically. It is hard to see a justification for tobacco companies to exist in their current forms. If tobacco is to be produced and distributed, then this should be done by entities which are not devoted to maximising returns for shareholders and payments to directors. 

Rather, they should be in some sense state or social enterprises, driven not by financial imperatives, but by the need to wind down tobacco usage over the years. Within the UK this, of course, means wholesale distribution, rather than production.

The exact form that this would take isn’t something I’ll go into now, but the Lib Dems ideas for water companies are interesting in this context. In short, a more thoroughly liberal approach to tobacco would include the political economy of tobacco, beyond consumer choice.

Anselm Anon has been a member of the Liberal Democrats since the 1990s.

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