Mail+: What a drag! Outdoor smoking is next on the chopping block of our basic freedoms

This article was first published on Mail+

In possibly the worst idea in British politics since Ed Miliband decided to order a bacon sandwich during the 2014 local elections campaign, some bright sparks in the southeast have decided to ban outdoor smoking in Oxfordshire to make it into England’s first ‘smoke-free county’.

As part of the ‘Oxfordshire Tobacco Control Strategy’, the county council expresses its belief that there’s an urgent need to ‘de-normalise’ smoking. We must, it says, ‘encourage’ businesses to ‘promote smoke-free environments and support staff to quit smoking’.

As if it wasn’t enough that the government is planning to outlaw pictures of cakes on Instagram to stop children getting fat, it now looks like outdoor smoking is next on the chopping block of our basic freedoms. The nanny state has gone into overdrive and is showing no sign of slowing down.

The problem doesn’t stop at local politics. Oxfordshire might be a few years ahead of the pack but as it turns out, what is happening there is a worrying preview of what we’re going to be seeing across the country very soon, thanks to Matt Hancock’s plan to produce a ‘smoke-free’ England by 2030. Enjoy having a cigarette outside the pub while you still can!

But where is our freedom to choose? It’s no business of any council or state if an adult wants to smoke or vape. But alas, the momentum against common sense is picking up like never before. The World Health Organisation seems to be pulling out all the stops to undermine an effective and pro-freedom policy for tobacco harm reduction: vaping.

When it comes to quitting smoking, e-cigarettes are known to be far less harmful than the real thing. More than half of Britain’s vapers are ex-smokers and they swear by it. And yet, the World Health Organisation recently commended the Indian health minister for his work on ‘tobacco control’ which included – you guessed it – banning vaping.

All this palaver has not gone unnoticed in Westminster. Slowly but surely, discontent is starting to rumble, especially on the Tory backbenches. A new All-Party Parliamentary Group led by the Conservative MP Mark Pawsey, which is focussed on regulation around vaping, has already called for the UK to withdraw from the WHO if it continues trying to push its anti-vaping authoritarianism on member states.

Having completely bungled its response to the Covid crisis and likely cost countless thousands of lives, you would have been forgiven for thinking the WHO might be a little more humble and self-aware when it comes to other issues of public health, rather than spending its time and money trying to pressure sovereign governments into outlawing an activity it doesn’t like, despite its benefits in tobacco harm reduction.

Our local politicians are guilty of the same thing as these international bureaucrats. Neither the ‘Oxfordshire Tobacco Control Strategy’ nor the government’s roadmap towards a smoke-free England make any mention of vaping whatsoever. Apparently, they would rather wallop the already floundering hospitality industry even more by introducing new restrictions on what people can and can’t do when they’re out and about.

Even more important than the economic damage is what all this means for our basic rights and freedoms. Boris Johnson is supposed to be a libertarian. He once spoke proudly about Britain as a ‘land of liberty’ and was elected to the leadership of the Conservative party on a platform of rolling back the ‘continued creep of the nanny state’.

And yet, our prime minister is proudly leading these new intrusions into our daily lives on behalf of the state. From regressive sugar taxes (which he promised to scrap) to disastrous ad bans and now, it appears, a ban on outdoor smoking, there seems to be nothing he won’t do.

This government consistently shows its willingness to eschew proven, effective, harm-reduction policies in favour of wildly overdone and entirely unprecedented infringements on our civil liberties. How much further down this road can it go?