OPINION There goes liberty – up in a puff of smoke

A number of fellow lifelong non-smokers recently lit up their first cigarettes. Their protest, spontaneous, unco-ordinated and not entirely comprising bolshy middle-aged men, was a sort of sulphurous ‘cry freedom’ moment from individuals despairing at the welter of state propaganda and interference unleashed to ‘celebrate’ the English smoking ban. Former Health Minister Caroline Flint described the ban triumphally as ‘the biggest exercise of its kind in the world’.

Advertising and PR messaging reflected this. Government, councils and quangos have unleashed enormous spending, paying tens of millions of pounds to in-house and agency comms teams briefed to publicise and support the new law. As the PR messaging reached its crescendo on 1 July, it shamelessly amplified crudely threatening messages against transgressors. Parallel advertising campaigns offered saccharine inducements to nicotine addicts to chuck the habit with the help and resources of an NHS already ­unable to provide basic care for the elderly in England. Journalists were clearly briefed that the ­imposition of a draconian ban which dictates in an unprecedented way how individuals should ­behave in all public and work places is merely the start. Already, the hint from government and the health watchdogs is that the next step will be the state’s pursuit of individuals into their homes. The interests of the children who could become the victims of their parents’ secondary smoking is posited as justification.

And yet is this clunking fist of PR-opaganda not in grave danger of becoming counter-productive as well as hideously anti-libertarian? Might those tens of thousands of smokers who have long been battling to cut back and reduce their intake not just rebel against being so brutalised and swing back in the opposite direction? Might the young wondering about a life of nicotine addiction view its new outlaw status as an incentive to go down the 20-a-day road? And how far do individuals really want to be told what to do by a state? A state which, in this instance, is seeking effectively to criminalise those from whose addictive habits it has prospered so hugely through the imposition of huge tobacco taxes over the last 50 years.
The danger is that education has given way to threat. The spin suggests that freedom of choice has been supplanted by dictates from a nanny state backed with unprecedented powers to pry and to punish. At a time of real dangers from those wanting to destroy ancient liberties, it seems likely that strident messaging around a tobacco ban will ultimately be seen as sending our liberty up in a puff of smoke.

Ian Monk is founder of Ian Monk Associates and a former executive at the Daily Mail and The Sun

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