Saturday, March 27, 2004

enemies of pleasure
One up for the enemies of pleasure. As of Monday, the lace curtains of the republic will twitch victorious as Ireland’s blanket public anti-smoking ban takes effect. Opponents are predicting a disaster for business. Well, maybe. The people who support smoking bans certainly seem to be the type who prefer to sit at home enjoying the thought of others having their pleasures curtailed rather than getting out and frolicking in the newly smoke-free pubs and bars. But my guess is that people will knuckle down and take their medicine. The fact that they should be forced to do so is what’s fundamentally wrong with the new law.

In part, the whole issue demonstrates what happens when business priorities colonize public discourse. The effects on business turn into privileged arguments, even where more pertinent arguments are available. Then the business arguments themselves are buried beneath a blizzard of competing statistics from both sides of the issue, as has happened after the smoking bans in California and New York

So will the great crusade cross the Irish sea, as interested parties fervently hope? My guess is not. The government have already ducked the issue, handing responsibility in this area to local authorities. And with tobacco taxes in Britain higher than in any other European country, the entity that profits most from smoking is the government. After the estimated £1.5 billion spent on smoking related illnesses per year, there’s still an annual tax take of £7.7 billion. He won’t want to lose that amount of revenue. In fact, I would argue the function that anti-smoking advocacy plays in the UK is to make smokers too cowed and harassed to protect effectively at the outrageous taxes they have to pay.

Ironically, the amount of duty free smuggled tobacco smoked in Britain now makes a pretty good case for lowering taxes on optimality grounds. But the anti-smoking lobby won’t let that go by without a terrific fight. As for us smokers, maybe our best tactic would be to demand that all tax revenue from smoking goes to the NHS. It would highlight the prominence of the snout barons at the treasury in the whole business and short circuit any attempts to deny smokers access to NHS services. And if it were successful, it would give the health service a handy cash injection without raising general taxation.