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How Britain gave up smoking Will Sunak's cigarette ban be the nail in the coffin?

Pete Doherty in 2006 (ANDREW STUART/AFP via Getty Images)

Pete Doherty in 2006 (ANDREW STUART/AFP via Getty Images)


November 7, 2023   6 mins

When the Labour government of Tony Blair banned smoking in enclosed public spaces, it was completing an agenda that had been outlined 20 years earlier, in an episode of the sitcom Yes, Prime Minister: “A complete ban on all cigarette sponsorship and advertising, even at the point of sale. £50 million to be spent on anti-smoking publicity. Ban smoking in all public places. And progressive, deterrent tax rises over the next five years until a packet of 20 costs about the same as a bottle of whisky.” Back in 1986, the studio audience had laughed at such draconian proposals; now, in 2006, they were government policy.

And yet, the evil of cigarettes has not been fully extinguished. Which is why the Conservative government of Rishi Sunak is proposing that those in their late teens should become the last generation ever to smoke legally in this country. Policy to be announced this week in the King’s Speech will eradicate tobacco from our society as surely and comprehensively as cannabis and cocaine have been.

None of this is particularly new, of course. Official disapproval of smoking goes back as far as James I’s 1604 pamphlet A Counterblaste to Tobacco, though it took another three centuries for the government to get fully involved. The spur then was the outbreak of the Boer War in 1899, which saw a flood of recruits to the colours, young men who were employed as servants, shopworkers, clerks and labourers. But if working-class patriotism was in fine fettle, the same could not be said of working-class health. Around three in 10 who applied to join the ranks were rejected on medical grounds. This worrying state of affairs, said some, was down to the advent of the cheap cigarette.

“The chief cause of unfitness was proved to be smoking,” declared Percy Everett, a magazine editor who later co-wrote Scouting for Boys with Boer War hero Robert Baden-Powell. The habit was responsible for “upwards of 80 diseases, including blindness and cancers of the lower lip and tongue, and is credited with killing 20,000 each year”. In short, it was “an evil which is sapping our boyhood’s strength, and so undermining our national manhood”. Smoking, like masturbation, was linked to blindness and insanity.

In response to such concerns came the Children’s Act of 1908, passed by H. H. Asquith’s Liberal government, which introduced the first restrictions. It became illegal to sell tobacco products to anyone under the age of 16, and policemen and park keepers were authorised to confiscate tobacco, cigarettes and cigarette papers from underage smokers; they could also search boys for such items — though, for reasons of delicacy and decency, not girls.

Adults, however, continued to smoke freely for six decades, until the evidence of the harm it caused became too great to ignore. The medical profession demanded a government intervention and in 1965 — when 70% of men and 40% of women smoked — television adverts for cigarettes were banned. (Other tobacco products fared better: “Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet” ads were still being aired on TV into the Nineties.) The ensuing introduction, in 1971, of warnings on packets — “Smoking can damage your health” — wasn’t entirely successful. A 1975 poll showed that a third of smokers didn’t believe cigarettes could kill. The wording was accordingly ramped up, to include the word “seriously”.

There was also an effort to encourage switching to weaker cigarettes. A league table was published, showing the potency of the various brands. The implication was that if you were on Capstan Full Strength — which offered 38mg of tar per cigarette — you might be better off if you traded down. The Embassy Ultra Mild had just a tenth of those levels.

Advertising restrictions didn’t apply to sponsorship, though. Sport was a particularly attractive partner, since it enabled the brand-names and logos to be displayed on television. Snooker even offered the opportunity to see sportsmen light up while competing. There was also footballer John “Bionic” Osborne, a goalie for West Bromwich Albion, who was famously photographed having a quick smoke during a match in 1972, while the ball was down the other end.

Some, feeling that government action was painfully slow, took matters into their own hands. In 1971, the New Inn in Appletreewick, West Yorkshire declared itself Britain’s first no-smoking pub. It was reported that takings slumped. Later that year, a GP made the news when he refused to accept as patients a 45-year-old woman or her eight children because she had chronic bronchitis and wouldn’t give up smoking. She’d had a 15-a-day habit before the rejection; after, she claimed: “I have become so distraught that I now find I am getting through 30 cigarettes a day.”

Between government initiative and peer pressure, the number of smokers steadily fell, as did the number of places where one could indulge. The restrictions were not always popular, however. In 1982, British Rail banned smoking in the buffet cars of its Southern Region trains, but found itself overwhelmed by complaints and forced to back down. Two years later, smoking was prohibited on Tube trains in London, despite a survey showing only 18% of passengers in favour of a ban and 54% against. By then, only around a third of adults smoked.

It was around this time, though, that public attitudes really changed. Evidence for the negative effects of passive smoking began to accumulate, and there was no coming back from that. In the Nineties, diktats were issued from Brussels that radically reduced the maximum tar yield per cigarette — even as the Common Agricultural Policy was pumping millions into subsidising tobacco production. (An exception was made for Greece, which really liked a strong smoke, and negotiated an opt-out until 2006).

In response to this directive, the other John Osborne — the playwright, not the footballer — wrote a splendidly vitriolic letter to The Times, railing against those who had deprived him of his favourite Turkish cigarettes; “untipped, robust and fragrant”, they were “one of life’s few and reliable pleasures”. The restriction was “craven abasement” to “puny tyrannies”, to countries that had so recently been dictatorships. “As a schoolboy, I narrowly escaped from ‘European’ bombs on my doorstep,” wrote Osborne. “I can forgive this eagerness, but not the compounding of the insult by dashing the tobacco from my lips 40 years on.”

Those who objected to government action on smoking — and they tended, like Osborne, to be awkward individualists — insisted that this was a question of the liberty of the individual. The war against smoking was a “new Puritanism”, said Nicholas Ridley, Margaret Thatcher’s environment secretary: “A crusade to stop others doing what they want or taking risks with their own lives.” (Ridley refused to give up smoking even when diagnosed with lung cancer.) And when David Simpson, formerly of Amnesty International, took over the anti-tobacco lobby group Action on Smoking and Health in 1979, journalist Bernard Levin spotted an irony: “Have all those years of admirable work on behalf of the oppressed and persecuted taught him nothing about the indivisibility of freedom?”

Like our modern culture wars, the division has not been between Left and Right: over the years, Conservative, Labour and Liberal governments have all been on the same page about tobacco. Rather, it’s been between polite society — those who know they know better — and those who need to be protected from themselves. John Reid, health secretary in Tony Blair’s government, described the war against tobacco as “an obsession of the learned middle class”, and Diane Abbott saw it in similar terms in 2006: “Under New Labour, the party has gone from speaking for the white working class to speaking at them — whether about junk food or the smoking ban.”

There was some truth in this. The four-decade-long campaign had successfully reduced the number of smokers, but its impact was shaped by income and social class. Cigarettes had become unfashionable among the middle classes, but 42% of unskilled workers still smoked, as did 55% of single mothers. According to the Office for National Statistics, the imbalance remains: those with no educational qualifications are four times more likely to smoke than those with a degree.

Education, taxation and location having not been enough, there now comes a new policy to stub out smoking altogether. Sunak’s proposal is to raise the age at which one can purchase tobacco products by a year, every year, so that those now too young to smoke will forever be too young. It’s based on a similar law passed in New Zealand last year, and it will presumably pass through Parliament without much of a hitch — because in government, and in public opinion, the war has been comprehensively won. A taste for tobacco has become the love that dare not speak its name. Smokers are down to fewer than one in eight of the adult population. A YouGov poll last month showed a third of people supporting the proposed age-restriction; when you added in the 29% who wanted a complete ban immediately, it’s clear that Sunak has the public onside.

Those who fear similar net-zero campaigns elsewhere — against alcohol, the wrong foodstuffs, cars, fireworks, whatever — might note with concern the pattern of public response to every step of the anti-smoking pathway. First, complaints, then ridicule, swiftly followed by compliance and acceptance. It took a while, but there was no rebellion. That studio laughter on Yes, Prime Minister is the sound of a different world.

Admittedly, the suppression of tobacco was greatly aided by an increased understanding of secondary smoking, but once the principle of prohibition is established, it becomes easier to administer. There’s no known secondary harm from vaping, for example, but restrictions have still been imposed by the Conservative government, and there will be more to come. In particular, there are objections to flavoured vapes, since these are assumed to be more attractive to children.

That’s not new, either. The same thinking was seen in the European directive that banned menthol-flavoured cigarettes — though its most notable objector was not a child, but Helmut Schmidt, the venerable ex-chancellor of West Germany. As well as being possibly the last major European statesman to carry a snuff-box, Schmidt was a chain-smoker, and it was reported that he bought up a stash of 38,000 mint-flavoured fags, which proved sufficient to see him through to his last puff. It’s not clear whether he bought enough. He died just shy of his 98th birthday.


Alwyn W. Turner is a cultural and political historian.

AlwynTurner

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Seb Dakin
Seb Dakin
8 months ago

Wow, I could use a cigarette right now. I just read something that Diane Abbott said that I agree with.

Martin M
Martin M
8 months ago

I think it’s a stretch to say that cannabis and cocaine have been “eradicated from society”. Neither seems particularly hard to come by in the UK.

Andrew D
Andrew D
8 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

I think that was his point…

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
8 months ago
Reply to  Andrew D

And will soon be legalised

Maurice Austin
Maurice Austin
8 months ago
Reply to  Andrew D

Yes of course it was his point. Anybody who actually researches the cigarette-hoarding of Helmut Schmidt knows exactly why he is using the words he uses. I was going to commend that hilarious example of understated irony (or even bathos), and then, as I knew I would, I came across someone who took those carefully exaggerated words at utter face value. Sheesh, what have we come to.

Alex Colchester
Alex Colchester
8 months ago
Reply to  Maurice Austin

Err
 the irony in this case is the author’s irony doesn’t work. People generally are smoking far less, unlike cannabis and cocaine where year on year they are using it far more. So it is a fail to attempt a mirrored ironic sentiment between something that is increasingly popular (illegal or not) and something that is declining drastically. If he had used vapes instead the irony would have worked.

Last edited 8 months ago by Alex Colchester
Amy Cools
Amy Cools
8 months ago

Cannabis has been ‘eradicated’? That’s very funny. Does the writer get out much? As the Prohibition era of the 1920s and early 30s in my native United States showed, when you make the sale of something that so many people desire and enjoy illegal, all you do is hand over the selling of the good from law-abiding, reasonably legislated merchants to criminal, violent ones. You do not stop sales. Cannabis is readily available in this country – the trade has just been driven underground, but not very deep underground.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
8 months ago
Reply to  Amy Cools

There was a great deal less of it about when the police actually enforced the law against it.

Amy Cools
Amy Cools
8 months ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

That may well be – but as with most wars on drugs and other goods, the harms of prohibition tend to outweigh the benefits. Once cannabis became illegal and the laws strictly enforced, cannabis largely went from a very mild drug to one that’s been selectively bred to become incredibly, sometimes dangerously potent, because the trade, still thriving, was completely unregulated since, of course, it’s illegal. And, murderous cartels supply so much of it. The net harm is clear.
Banning cigarettes is similarly stupid. There’s a huge black market in them already here because they’re so heavily taxed, as a civil servant I know tells me. You’ll just see more people dealing and buying strong, cheap, unregulated cigarettes, and like so many other banned substances, often, unknown to the purchaser, laced with drugs to make them even more addictive. I’ve also talked to many people who buy large quantities of tobacco cheaply when on holiday in Europe and bring it back with them.
Britain took the right approach with vaping, rightly seeing it as harm reduction because in the real world, harm elimination is impossible. (My native country, the US, took a hardline, puritanical approach and – surprise, surprise! – young people started buying illicit vaping products with all kinds of poisonous stuff added, in many cases killing them.) Britain should take the same approach to cigarettes and tobacco. Regulate the harmful additives in tobacco but keep it fully legal.

Dominic A
Dominic A
8 months ago
Reply to  Amy Cools

The strength issue is grealy overstated – as with everything else in life, people simply use less, or more according to strength and taste – e.g. in the past ‘pure grass reefers’, and other large quantity vehicles were common, now not so much, it’s pipes with small nuggets, or edibles. Secondly, in the UK & Europe at least, hashish was the norm since the 1960s – a concentrated product, stronger than the modern grass of today, which has largely replaced it in recent years.

Dominic A
Dominic A
8 months ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

Buit simplistic. The number who have tried cannnabis has gone way up, whilst regular users have fallen in number. Seizures of cannabis from smuggling (and I believe the authorities enforce the laws here as much as they ever did, austerity permitting) have yo-yo’d but showing no particular overall trend.

Most people don’t like it – it’s a difficult drug in some ways, can make you feel anxious, self conscious. The amount of alcohol consumption, a much more dangerous drug has fallen, especially amongst young people – it may be that there is a switch.

Also, people are noticing cannabis use much more often because it is open – whereas it used to happen behind absolutely only behind close doors and maybe at some festivals.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
8 months ago

“Policy to be announced this week in the King’s Speech will eradicate tobacco from our society as surely and comprehensively as cannabis and cocaine have been.”
You effing what?!?

Jo Jo
Jo Jo
8 months ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

Well said, Richard 🙂

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
8 months ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

You are hereby appointed WOKEFINDER GENERAL.
Congratulations!

Tony Taylor
Tony Taylor
8 months ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

Craven R? Craven A.

Francisco Menezes
Francisco Menezes
8 months ago

Not urgent, not important. What else could possibly be done?

Martin Butler
Martin Butler
8 months ago

Interesting how when the smoking restrictions came in during the Blair years it was a bit like ULEZ now. The Daily Mail libertarians going on about government overreach and nanny states. Does anyone now think we ought to go back to unrestricted smoking? – don’t think so. But Sunak won’t grasp the real health epidemic facing this country- that is obesity. The junk food lobby, which makes a fortune from our appalling diets, will ensure there is no government action there.

Peter B
Peter B
8 months ago
Reply to  Martin Butler

Excellent point. And perhaps some people moved on from smoking to food. But people aren’t forced to eat unhealthy food or not exercise enough.

Martin Butler
Martin Butler
8 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

Yes that is the standard, and understandable response. But I’m sure you’ve seen film clips of people in the streets of London or US cities in the 1930s. You can’t help noticing that there are next to no fat people. This invites an interesting question. Were people then just making more intelligent food choices? Were they just more health conscious in those days? I don’t think so. And if you magically transported all those people to now, would they get fat. Yes, many probably would. Think this thought experiment tells us it real isn’t about individual responsibility- that’s just an easy get out. People eat the stuff that is normal in that culture- just like smoking used to be normal. The only body that can change norms are governments. (Wearing seat belts – is another example.) Food companies, like tobacco companies, don’t care a jot about the overall health of a country- they care only about the bottom line.

Peter B
Peter B
8 months ago
Reply to  Martin Butler

Yes, I was aware that I’d oversimplified in writing that. It’s not only down to personal responsibility – things like mental wellbeing and social influences also influence people’s decisions. It’s easier for healthy, well off people to make good choices (even if we have the same choices).
But I’d rather have society set better examples than restrict choice through legislation and taxes. Individuals and local groups can provide leadership and examples.

Martin Butler
Martin Butler
8 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

We’ll yes both are important. But personally I’m not against a bit of nannying. Remember that in the past there were never the options that are available now. Ordinary people are just no match for the sophisticated psychology of the big corporations through advertising and social media. I know I go against the grain on UnHerd but I want more restrictions on corporate power.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
8 months ago
Reply to  Martin Butler

It took a lot to get fat in the 30’s, largely because you didn’t have the sugary processed foods.
When all that’s in the shops to buy is meat and veg you have to eat colossal amounts to get fat, especially as jobs and life in general was much more physical.
I don’t think it’s that people were more cautious with their food choices, it’s just that the bad (and often tasty) choices weren’t available

tom j
tom j
8 months ago
Reply to  Martin Butler

I mean it’s the definition of a nanny state. Yes, I think it should be up to the individual, it isn’t the place of the state to tell adults that they can’t smoke.

Martin Butler
Martin Butler
8 months ago
Reply to  tom j

On your logic there should be no smoking restrictions, no restrictions on drugs, in fact no restrictions on anything. Just basic laws. That’s most people’s idea of hell. Extreme libertarianism is, like communism, just a rather silly abstract theory.

Tony Taylor
Tony Taylor
8 months ago

If I could have one ciggy a day, and it tasted as good as it did when I started in 1976, I would. But I can’t, and it doesn’t, so I don’t.

Dominic A
Dominic A
8 months ago
Reply to  Tony Taylor

Cigarettes tasted good to you when you started – really? Surely they start out disgusting, but people plough on through to get to the addiction , aaahhh stage.

Tony Taylor
Tony Taylor
8 months ago
Reply to  Dominic A

I was addicted from my first drag of a Marly Red.

Dominic A
Dominic A
8 months ago
Reply to  Tony Taylor

I guess you were used to smoke already, pre-fumigated?

Tony Taylor
Tony Taylor
8 months ago
Reply to  Dominic A

I loved my first drag. A Marly Red at the Park Royal in Carlton. As I got older, probably through guilt, the gaspers tasted progressively worse.

Paul Johnston
Paul Johnston
8 months ago

“Once the principle of prohibition is established it becomes easier to administer….” That word Prohibition should ring bells among the historically literate . The American attempt at prohibition of alcohol, for the best possible of reasons no doubt, was the biggest bonanza for organised crime possibly in human history. It opened to it access to funds unimaginable beforehand, enabling the corruption of society and establishment of gangs from which American society has arguably never fully recovered, even though that “easy to administer” policy was abandoned by Roosevelt 90 years ago. I just celebrated the 40th anniversary of giving up.smoking myself, but I urge government to look at the history of prohibition before embarking on a policy that closely resembles it.

Last edited 8 months ago by Paul Johnston
Martin Butler
Martin Butler
8 months ago
Reply to  Paul Johnston

Yes can’t just prohibit something that is culturally embedded, of course. But you certainly can help something along when a culture is moving in that direction anyway, and the public can see the point.

Lindsay S
Lindsay S
8 months ago

We’ve just switched cigarettes for vapes. Same drug just a different delivery system. When I hear people say “I’m not a smoker” whilst puffing on their vape, I think to myself that a smackhead is still smackhead whether or not he smokes it or injects it. You haven’t quit until you’re no longer consuming nicotine.

Martin M
Martin M
8 months ago
Reply to  Lindsay S

“Smoking” implies “inhaling smoke”. That is not what you do when you vape.

Lindsay S
Lindsay S
8 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

i was a smoker for 20 years, I did it because I became addicted to nicotine. I didn’t sit by open fires trying to inhale lungfuls of smoke.

Jeff Butcher
Jeff Butcher
8 months ago
Reply to  Lindsay S

Maybe but hardly anyone smokes now whereas when I was a kid in the 70s almost everyone smoked, everywhere, all the time.
Even people who said they didn’t ‘smoke’ often smoked cigars!
One of the reasons I think I eventually took it up myself was because I grew up in a fug of the adults’ fag smoke.
I think I was ‘primed’ in this way before I even started.
I quit nearly ten years ago and am very glad I managed to, although it took about 7 attempts.

Lindsay S
Lindsay S
8 months ago
Reply to  Jeff Butcher

And now it’s the same thing with vaping. The only thing to change is the delivery system. Now it smells and tastes nicer and comes in much stronger doses!

Jeff Butcher
Jeff Butcher
8 months ago
Reply to  Lindsay S

Which is why we need to keep the kids off of them. There is also a pernicious idea that they are a valid substitute for cigarettes. Maybe in the short term.

Andrew Stuart
Andrew Stuart
8 months ago

I can remember smoking on long haul flights. The back rows were reserved for us. Kids these days will never know how good we had it 😉

Ida March
Ida March
8 months ago

Bring on the black market in tobacco.

anthony henderson
anthony henderson
8 months ago

The way things are going smoking may make a big comeback.

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
8 months ago

Time to take up buttlegging. I wonder where I can buy a transatlantic-worthy ship with a large cargo hold.

Simon Neale
Simon Neale
8 months ago

“The chief cause of unfitness was proved to be smoking,” declared Percy Everett, a magazine editor who later co-wrote Scouting for Boys with Boer War hero Robert Baden-Powell. 

Ironic that they have nearly succeeded in driving smoking from polite society, while scouting for boys was elevated into being stunning and brave.

Colorado UnHerd
Colorado UnHerd
8 months ago

“Admittedly, the suppression of tobacco was greatly aided by an increased understanding of secondary smoking ..”
I think the author too belatedly, lightly and briefly dismisses this aspect of smoking, which does not apply to other enjoyable self-harms, including alcohol and sugar. Many people rail at infringements on adult bodily autonomy — including this right to self-harm — but draw a line at harming others. The detriments of secondhand smoke — including to fetuses and young children, who cannot remove themselves from their environments — are long- and well-established. Other vices that physically harm only adult users are far less likely to incur prohibition, especially in capitalist economies in which they generate great profit.

Last edited 8 months ago by Colorado UnHerd
Ida March
Ida March
8 months ago

No. The suppression of tobacco was greatly aided by a load of fiddled data on secondary smoking.
The effects of secondary smoking on health are negligible. That’s not to say that secondary smoke isn’t annoying. But it isn’t a health hazard in any way.
Similarly, Ansel Keys fiddled his figures on cholesterol and heart disease. There’s no link. It’s all a lie.

Colorado UnHerd
Colorado UnHerd
8 months ago
Reply to  Ida March

I suggest you look at the well-documented negative effects of maternal smoking on fetuses. They are legion; here’s a more recent study:
https://bmcmedicine.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12916-022-02507-w
with an excerpt:
“An umbrella review showed that (maternal smoking during pregnancy) is associated with increased risks of 20 infant-related and seven mother-related health conditions [1]. Most of these association are very likely to be causal and some can have long-term impacts across different phases of life from perinatal to adulthood. MSDP is associated with 3-fold increased risk of sudden infant death syndrome, 2-fold increased risk of asthma, and 1.5-fold increased risk of low birth weight, stillbirth, and obesity in the offspring.” 
Ample studies demonstrate the hazards of inhaling others’ tobacco smoke. According to the American Cancer Society, this “sidestream smoke” contains higher concentrations of nicotine and carcinogenic agents than that inhaled by the smoker.
Perhaps you will share the research that causes you to dismiss the danger of secondhand smoke as “a lie.”

Last edited 8 months ago by Colorado UnHerd
Michael McElwee
Michael McElwee
8 months ago
Reply to  Ida March

I’ll take the fun this writer had at the expense of finger wagging naysayers who would deny a poor bloke a puff with his pint. It’s the “do your own thing” crowd wagging its finger at those who “do their own thing.” The rank hypocrisy of liberalism. Oh what a joy it is to laugh at all this. It’s just the right medicine. Thank you, sir, for this piece. And please, keep them coming.

Alan Thorpe
Alan Thorpe
8 months ago

I have never smoked but I don’t agree with a complete ban. If people want to smoke at home or if pubs want to allow smoking and they have enough customers who want that environment and staff willing to work in it I do not see a problem. It might be related to the health care so stop free health care and make people pay for they unhealthy lifestyles and that extends beyond smoking.

Dominic A
Dominic A
8 months ago
Reply to  Alan Thorpe

“make people pay for they unhealthy lifestyles”
Oh, in the case of smoking they already do – ‘in spades’. ÂŁ7 duty on every pack, and then 10 years retirement age lost. If the government were truly cynical they’d be begging us to smoke up.

Bryan Dale
Bryan Dale
8 months ago

Legal or not, a smoking ban will soon bring submachine guns back into fashion as they were during the American prohibition of alcohol.

Dominic A
Dominic A
8 months ago
Reply to  Bryan Dale

History shows that people won’t give up their booze – this lesson almost certainly does not extend to tobacco, for self-evident reasons.