House of Enablers – Does Anything Now Go For Tobacco Control in the UK?

After a public debate focusing on the well rehearsed themes of individual liberty and enforceability, on Monday, the UK Parliament adopted amendments to the 2013 Children and Families Bill which outlaw smoking in cars with children, the proxy purchasing of tobacco products for children and which also provide a basis for the statutory introduction of plain packaging in the UK. The greatest heat was generated by the proposal to ban smoking in cars with children – touching as it did on the great libertarian themes of personal responsibility and private space – but in truth the passing of this measure is (to coin the phrase of the week) more symbolic than material and the real significance of the vote lies elsewhere.

The ban on smoking in cars with children does represent the first incursion of the British state into the private spaces of its citizens with regard to tobacco use but beyond jibes about nanny-statism there was little serious appetite on the part of libertarians, and much less (if at any at all) on the part of the tobacco industry to argue for the positive right of people to deliver their kids from the school-run reeking of cigarette smoke.

Broad-Based Enabling Legislation for Plain Packaging (and More?)

Arguably the more substantive amendment though is the enabling act which was attached to the Children and Families Bill in the UK’s upper chamber, the House of Lords with the stated intention of facilitating the introduction of plain packaging in the UK. When it became clear that the members of the upper house were planning to force the issue of plain packaging (through amendments to the Children and Families Act) the British government reversed their previous rejection of the measure and announced a review of the academic evidence for plain packaging of cigarettes, led by public health figure Sir Cyril Chantler .

The enabling legislation means that the government can now act swiftly to make provision for standardised packaging in the (likely) event that the Chantler review recommends it on the basis of the public health and academic terms of reference of its own review. However, the clause is arguably so broadly drafted that Monday evening witnessed one of the last ever substantive parliamentary debates on tobacco control in the UK. In an explicit facilitation of plain packaging, the legislation gives current and future Secretaries of State for Health the right to impose ‘prohibitions, requirements or limitations’ on the retail packaging of tobacco products. However, it also gives ministers the power to regulate the quantity of cigarettes or other tobacco in a pack, as well as the appearance, size, shape and flavour of the products themselves.

UK Political Will Now Clearly Supportive of Further Tobacco Control 

Opponents of increased tobacco control in the UK argue that in view of what further regulations could be adopted there, the enabling legislation amounts to a fait accompli not only for plain packaging but potentially for a range of other tobacco control measures. In a less concrete sense, the amendments to the Children’s and Families Bill signal that the mainstream of political will in the UK (as reflected by the country’s elected representatives) now has little sympathy for arguments of individual liberty and commercial free speech, which have, in the past, somewhat curtailed the reach of legislation. And if the bigger issues in tobacco control are a done deal in the UK (where the governing coalition is a combination of liberals and free-marketeers), ideologically speaking, then they are likely to be so in other markets too; and shortly will be so in practice, both there and elsewhere.