Smoking and individualism


On ‘No Smoking Day’ the government announced its intention to ban the display of tobacco in shops and to seriously considering requiring plain packaging for all tobacco products.

Both of these measures are fundamentally illiberal. Neither is justified based on the evidence (have display bans in Iceland and Canada further reduced youth smoking or helped people to quit? No.). And both will create all sorts of unintended consequences (display bans will cost shopkeepers thousands of pounds, plain packaging will severely exacerbate existing problems with counterfeiting).

But there’s a deeper sense in which I find the ‘war on tobacco’ disturbing. It seems to me that tobacco is at the coalface of a much bigger cultural battle, in which capitalism, individualism and rationality are all coming under relentless attack by the enemies of freedom.

Industries are vilified for lacking a so-called ‘social purpose’, regardless of whether they are providing a good or service that people freely want to purchase. The government spends our money on campaigns to ‘denormalize’ anyone who refuses to conform to the politically correct lifestyle ethic. Reason is rejected in favour of preachy junk science and tabloid-friendly scare stories.

I’m reminded of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, and in particular Ellsworth Toohey’s speech to Peter Keating on how to rule the world:

Look at the moral atmosphere of today. Everything enjoyable, from cigarettes to sex to ambition to the profit motive, is considered depraved or sinful. Just prove that a thing makes men happy -- and you've damned it. That's how far we've come. We've tied happiness to guilt. And we've got mankind by the throat. Throw your first-born into a sacrificial furnace -- lie on a bed of nails -- go into the desert to mortify the flesh -- don't dance -- don't go to the movies on Sunday -- don't try to get rich -- don't smoke -- don't drink. It's all the same line… Kill the individual. Kill man’s soul. The rest will follow automatically.