“Whether you call yourself an anarchist, communist, socialist, social democrat, liberal, republican, libertarian, monarchist, conservative or none of the above matters any longer. What matters is that you stand to fight to resist the totalitarian future that has been prepared for us behind the cloak of this covid crisis, and which is on the cusp of becoming our present.”
Given Boris Johnson’s penchant for health interventions, Jacinda Ardern’s move to make buying tobacco illegal is a cautionary tale for us
ZOE STRIMPEL12 December 2021 • 9:00am
At the start of the pandemic, thanks to its immediate and draconian response to Covid, New Zealand became an overnight sensation, seen as the high-water mark of governmental responsibility and virtue – and by many more than those naturally drawn to a heavy-handed state. Heck, even I was a fan of Jacinda Ardern’s short, sharp and brutal approach: pay now, rake in the rewards later.
Sadly, since then, along with her Aussie neighbours, Ardern has revealed herself to be hopelessly addicted to a machinery of state so obsessed with controlling public health, the woods and the trees have well and truly ceased to be distinguishable.
Generally, I resist the argument that says that Covid rules are the beginning of the end for all liberty and still think Britain has a light, if bumbling, touch. But in New Zealand’s case, the Covid response does seem a rather chilling sign of a new order and, with Boris’s rather worrying fondness for health nannying himself (sugar taxes, intrusive messaging about obesity, junk food advert bans), we should be looking at Ardern’s sinister paradise as a cautionary tale.
Last week, New Zealand announced that it is going to make buying cigarettes illegal within four years. The gleeful aim of the associate health minister Ayesha Verrall is that “people aged 14, when the law comes into effect, will never be able to legally purchase tobacco”. New legislation pushes up the minimum age for fag-buying, and, brazenly meddling in basic commercial freedoms, cuts down the shops where cigarettes can be legally sold and drastically reduces the legal amount of nicotine permitted in tobacco products.
Now, I’m not and have never been a smoker (bar the odd very odd one), I take health very seriously (friends call me a hypochondriac), and I personally would want to avoid doing things in excess that massively heighten the risk of myriad cancers; I’d also rather those I love to avoid doing so. I don’t always succeed with restraint, but I would like to be better.
But I still think people should be allowed to consume products with health risks in whatever quantity they want, without having to navigate the inevitable black market to do so.
The end of the chain smoker would be a worrying thing. There are several reasons for this. First, the human relationship to vice is complicated, a pendulum that swings between bad and good; suffering and pleasure, constraint and release. Addiction is part of the picture, but not all – and I am in favour of increased support for those who want to quit. But to blanket ban things that can cause harmful health outcomes in great quantities is to ban the patchwork of needs, impulses and self-control that goes into being human – and this a private, not a public affair.
As citizens, we do things for the state and it does things for us; that’s the contract. We contribute to a society by working, spending, volunteering and, above all, obeying the law. The society then offers us something in return: policing, the protection of contracts, a functioning healthcare system – whether private or public – and a reasonable, not overly censorious legal framework. It should therefore not be any of the state’s business what I choose to put in my mouth or my body, so long as it doesn’t force others to do the same.
To this end, I agree with laws against smoking in communal areas indoors and struggle to defend adults who smoke in homes and cars where children have no choice but to live and breathe. But the freedom to smoke, without having to take out a second mortgage, should remain.
Then there’s the big blatant hole in the “ban smoking” argument: namely, why ban fags but not booze? Alcohol is also linked to grave health outcomes and severe long-term pressures on healthcare, and the direct costs to the NHS, in Britain’s case, are similar to those caused by smoking. Unlike fags, booze fosters violence, including domestic violence.
But we like alcohol too much. It’s too important to our way of life, our economy and, yes, our sense of individual liberty to ban. In New Zealand, the wine industry is one of its top exports – 12th – and is worth NZ$1.5billion (£770m) to GDP per year. It’s also a key source of national branding, prestige and tourism. We can assume that the health minister, who might well enjoy a glass of Pinot Noir every now and then, isn’t going to begin smugly chirping away about a plan for making booze illegal any time soon.
The desire to allow booze but not fags highlights the sheer slipperiness of the slope: someone at the top deciding what is good vice and what is bad vice. In reality, one woman’s vice and health nightmare is another’s freedom, pleasure, and agency.
The law against fags is set to go into effect next year. The announcement was hailed by Verrall as “a historic day for the health of our people”, a sinister pledge if ever I heard one. What else could be banned to justify saving “the health” of a “people”? Whatever a government fancies, really. Doughnuts, failing to reach 10,000 steps a day, being nasty, being stressed, not having enough sex and – of course – too many bottles of New Zealand Cloudy Bay.
The Cloudy Bay will be the last to go. In the meantime, Britain, with its own tendencies towards nannying to save a broken health system should take concerned note of the direction of travel for freedom in the once-enlightened down under, which is down, down, down.