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The anti-smoking pressure group whose wackiest ideas always become law

Every few years, Action on Smoking and Health draws up a wish list of all the policies it would introduce if it was king for the day. It then spends the next few years lobbying ferociously and watches with a satisfied smirk as every single one of their brainwaves becomes the law of the land.

The manifesto of this tiny pressure group is, in effect, the manifesto of whichever party is in power. The only difference is that governments often ignore their own manifesto commitments (such as Labour’s 2005 pledge to exempt private members clubs from the smoking ban) whereas the ASH manifesto is always implemented to the letter.

ASH’s last legislative programme – 2008’s ‘Beyond Smoking Kills’ – became obsolete when the Conservatives acted on its wackiest idea, plain packaging, earlier in the year. Total victory set the stage for yet another brainstorming session, the fruits of which will be released in a report titled ‘Smoking Still Kills’ later this month. This document has already fallen into the hands of Guido Fawkes who provided a peek preview today.

If smokers were hoping that the vendetta against them would end with plain packaging, they need to think again. Amongst ASH’s new ruses are minimum pricing for tobacco, annual price rises of five per cent above inflation for cigarettes, a smoking ban in all cars and a ban on smoking outdoors.

In recent years, anti-smoking policies such as banning tobacco displays in shops have been put forward on the not-very-convincing pretext that they will discourage children from taking up the habit. Before that, the smoking ban in enclosed spaces was pushed on the basis that it would ‘protect’ employees.

Drunk with success, ASH has now ditched such rhetoric. The new policies are overtly aimed at hassling and impoverishing adults who choose to smoke.

When the smoking ban came in, anti-smoking campaigners swore on a stack of bibles that they would never consider banning smoking in the open air. They now want a consultation on it. When they lobbied for a ban on smoking in cars with children, they promised that it was not the start of a slippery slope that would lead to a ban in all cars. They are now pushing for exactly that. All this from a group that laughably claims that it is ‘not anti-smoker’.

They even want to get rid of the trifling exemption to the smoking ban that allows actors to smoke in theatrical productions. Seriously, what do they hope to gain from such teeth-grinding fanaticism? Oh, and if you want to watch a film or TV show that portrays someone smoking, ASH think you should be subjected to a hectoring anti-smoking commercial beforehand. Compulsory by law, naturally.

It would be easy to assume that this combination of petty and extreme demands are a way of ASH justifying their state funding at a time of budget cuts (ASH receives a generous grant from the Department of Health every year).

Mission creep is nothing new in pressure group politics, but for organisations like ASH incremental prohibition has always been the game. Mission creep is a feature, not a bug, of ‘tobacco control’. ASH could never have achieved what they have if they had been open about their agenda when they were formed in the 1970s. Even today, they will not admit to being prohibitionists. They just want smoking to be sort-of-prohibited.

The problem with treating smoking as if it is virtually illegal is that smokers start viewing it the same way. The sale of illegal cigarettes has risen by 33 per cent in the last two years, according to HMRC, and it is likely to rise further when branding is abolished next year. In its 2008 manifesto, ASH hoped that the illicit share of the cigarette market would be three per cent by 2015. In fact, it is 10 per cent and rising.

That’s four billion cigarettes entering the country every year without being taxed, in addition to 4,400 tonnes of rolling tobacco, and HMRC’s figures almost certainly underestimate the scale of the problem.

This could be excused as collateral damage if ASH’s legislative diarrhoea led to a dramatic decline in people smoking, but it doesn’t. In its 2008 report, they set an ‘ambitious but achievable’ target of reducing the smoking rate to 11 per cent by 2015. At the time, it was 21 per cent. It has dropped by a mere 1.5 percentage points, to 19.5 per cent, in the intervening seven years despite the government capitulating to all of its demands. There are plenty of countries that achieve bigger drops than this by doing nothing at all. ASH have now reset their target and are now hoping that smoking prevalence will be 13 per cent by 2020. I, for one, am prepared to bet that it will be considerably higher than that.

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