A mixed bag for booze and fags

It has been a fortnight of contrasting fortunes for the UK's two biggest 'sin' industries.

The success of alcohol and tobacco lobbying are comensurate with public support, argues Neil Watkins
The success of alcohol and tobacco lobbying are comensurate with public support, argues Neil Watkins
Despite its vast resources, there is a sense that in many respects the tobacco industry is managing its own decline as concerns over public health increasingly take precedence over arguments of trade, tax revenue and crime.

Such is the level of support, both public and political, for tighter restrictions on tobacco sales that the Government has been able to pass its new rules without really ever having had to engage properly over some of the objections the industry has raised. 

The question of whether a regime of standardised packaging might see an increase in counterfeit or smuggled cigarettes, for instance, still has not been answered, with ministers putting the burden of compelling proof on the industry rather than its opponents.

The tobacco lobby is hampered by the fact that, when its arguments are boiled down and stripped of any room for conjecture, the remaining points in favour are generally libertarian in flavour and are easily dismissed.

FOREST, the smokers’ rights group, has had difficulty attracting a broad support base among the public, meaning industry has remained its main funding source.

The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), on the other hand, has recruited almost 170,000 members – all of whom support the organisation’s political agenda – and continues to grow in size and influence.

Unlike tobacco, it has been possible to argue that people can have a healthy relationship with alcohol. CAMRA has been able to conjure up an idealised image of ‘community pubs’ into which a whole range of other arguments over Pubcos and beer duty can conveniently be bundled.

Rhetoric has masked a range of more nuanced factors contributing to pub closures and allowed the industry to paint a more simplified picture that is largely about tax.

A genuine and demonstrable base of public support, coupled with the fact that (again, unlike tobacco) there isn’t a full-scale campaign opposing its key aims, has helped the alcohol industry get its priorities on to the public policy agenda – as demonstrated by the announcement of a further 1p reduction in beer duty in the Chancellor’s pre-election Budget.

The tough regulatory environment within which the tobacco industry operates and the lack of a tangible constituency of smokers, meanwhile, has meant big tobacco has generally been fighting a losing battle.
The sheer strength of anti-tobacco campaigns has not helped the industry’s cause, either – with organisations like Cancer Research UK making a powerful case based on difficult-to-dispute scientific evidence.

It is not enough, though, to be seen as being right. 

Without a sustained and effective lobbying campaign in its favour, standardised cigarette packaging would not have been introduced as quickly, if at all, as political will is hard to cultivate.

Making arguments that run contrary to the fundamental political truths of the moment can be as futile as pushing against a locked door. 

Even if the door is wide open, though, it can be a costly business for today’s lobbyist to walk through it.

Neil Watkins is a parliamentary researcher

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