The Department of Health recently indicated that the government might overturn an anti-tobacco law passed by the Labour government during its last months in office. The law has not yet been implemented, but will prohibit cigarette vending machines in pubs and force retailers, including convenience stores, to remove displays of cigarettes. It was argued that the legislation would reduce children’s access to cigarettes and other tobacco products, as well as improve public health by reducing the rate of tobacco use in the general public.
The law, however, is unnecessary, and the recent news from the Department of Health is a heartening signal that the Coalition government may be willing to retreat from Labour’s regulation reflex. The United Kingdom does not need further legislation to prevent children from consuming tobacco products; existing law already prevents tobacco vendors from selling to those under the age of eighteen. Instead of merely enforcing the smoking age, the Labour law imposes needless costs on businesses, which would have to reconfigure their shops to accommodate the new regulations. Furthermore, the British government has already placed severe restrictions on the tobacco industry in an attempt to reduce smoking rates; the advertising of tobacco products was banned in 2003, and a ban on smoking in public was implemented in 2007.
More important than the regulatory costs and redundancy of the law is the paternalistic attitude that underlies this and the rest of the regulations that are the product of the crusade against tobacco use. Such paternalism is dangerous because it subverts self-determination and places in its stead values that are imposed by the government. British adults are not ignorant of the health effects of smoking and are fully aware of the consequences of their actions; those that choose to smoke merely choose to accept these consequences. For those who have supported restrictions on tobacco products, the health of the individual is of greater priority than his or her wishes and preferences. While improving health is certainly a noble goal, the substitution of communal goals and values for individual autonomy is a dangerous path for British society to walk along. It is time to stop and turn around.