Politics.co.uk: Banning vape sales will do more harm than good

This article was first published on Politics.co.uk

It was recently revealed that Sajid Javid, still fresh-faced in his new job as health secretary, is set to launch the next stage in the government’s plan to make England ‘smoke-free by 2030’, with a focus on cracking down on younger smokers. The headline proposal is banning sales of e-cigarettes to under-21s, in the hope that 18-21-year-olds would no longer be able to vape.

If you had never heard of vaping and you were confronted with that statement, you would be forgiven for thinking that vaping is a type of smoking and that more young people taking up e-cigarettes is contributing to an epidemic of young smokers.

The reality is the exact opposite. Vaping is 200 times less likely to give you cancer than smoking. According to Public Health England, its overall health risks are around 95% smaller than those of traditional cigarettes.

In fact, vaping isn’t just a safer activity than smoking. It’s also actively useful in helping people quit cigarettes. Vaping is consistently shown to be the most effective quitting tool by far. It works in 74% of cases – a much higher success rate than nicotine patches, going cold turkey and every other smoking cessation method. The result is that 52% of Britain’s vapers – roughly 1.7 million people – are former smokers.

Why on Earth, then, is the government attacking vaping? If it wants to make England ‘smoke-free by 2030’, it should surely be encouraging current smokers – including young people, who have the longest stretch of potential cigarette consumption ahead of them – to try the single most effective method for quitting cigarettes.

The answer lies beyond Whitehall. The World Health Organisation, having apparently decided that communicable diseases, novel viruses and pandemics are old news, has some time on its hands. It has used that time to declare war on vaping.

Bafflingly, its relentless campaign against e-cigarettes forms part of what it calls its ‘Tobacco Free Initiative’. The WHO is actively opposing the best proven method for weaning people off tobacco and branding it as an anti-tobacco project. You couldn’t make it up.

Unfortunately, it seems our government is becoming more and more susceptible to the shrieking of the public health lobby, , so long as it comes from someone with a WHO job title and some letters after their name. It is obligingly doing as it is told and gradually bringing the hammer down on vaping, which will have appalling consequences for tobacco harm reduction in Britain.

In fairness to Sajid Javid, he is reportedly also considering a ban on cigarette sales to 18-21-year-olds. But the problem with resorting to blanket bans on things the government has decided it doesn’t like is that they are consistently ineffectual.

A harrowing 2018 NHS study found that 16% of 11-15-year-olds have smoked. Children of that age are, of course, already subject to a cigarette sales ban. Put simply, bans never work. As one of countless examples, take the 2020 alcohol ban in South Africa, which saw a huge surge in supermarkets selling pineapples, yeast and sugar as home-brewing kits.

Short-sighted measures restricting sales of certain products never affect the number of people using those products. The war on drugs is perhaps the ultimate case in point. This proposed policy would have no effect whatsoever on the number of 18-21-year-olds who buy cigarettes or e-cigarettes.

All a sales ban would do is push those who vape or smoke to the illegal market, making them less safe by denying them access to licenced, regulated vendors and funnelling money directly into the pockets of violent criminal gangs.

More fundamental, even, than the science or the political consequences of this kind of policy is the principle. If this government believes 18-21-year-olds, who can buy houses, fight in wars and get married, are so vulnerable they need to be protected from watermelon-flavoured vapour, then are there any aspects of everyday life which it thinks should not be subject to sweeping state intervention?

Politics.co.uk: Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy reveals a disdain for the poor

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Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy is 290 pages long but its key policy recommendations can be summed up in a few words: new taxes on sugary and salty foods and a system whereby vegetables are provided by the NHS on prescription.

Putting that second yes-and-ho idea aside for the time being – sin taxes represent an old idea and a jaded way of thinking about public health policy which ought to have faded from public attention by now. No country taxes sugar or salt – Britain would be the first – and there are good reasons for that.

Punitive taxes of this kind make the poor poorer. After a year-and-a-half of immeasurable strain on household finances, the last thing a government of any political persuasion should want to do is heap new, unnecessary tax burdens on working families. Endless research points to the fact that, unsurprisingly, making the weekly shopping trip more expensive hurts the poor more than anyone else.

Being poor is expensive. The poverty premium means poor people already pay through the nose for energy, credit, insurance and other essentials. Henry Dimbleby, the son of David Dimbleby and the epitome of socio-economic privilege, could never begin to understand the implications of the policies he is proposing. He would hardly notice if the price of a box of Frosties went up by 87p, as would be the case under his proposal – but a working parent shopping to feed their children would feel the strain.

The costs aren’t justified by the outcomes because, as we know from Theresa May’s tax on sugary soft drinks, sin taxes don’t work. When consumers are confronted with the fact that their sugary drink of choice costs more than it did last week, one of three things happens.

Either they fork out and pay the extra money, they switch to other high-calorie, high-sugar alternatives like fruit juices, or they offset the price difference by opting for cheaper, own-brand alternatives with the same sugar content. The result is that sugar consumption is unaffected.

But whether sugar taxes reduce sugar intake is beside the point. If they were a silver bullet which made unnecessary sugar consumption completely unfeasible (which could conceivably happen, if the tax crept high enough) would that outcome actually be desirable? Do we want to live in a country where our behaviour is moulded to the whims of the state, where our lifestyle choices are entirely predictable because everything has been predetermined in Whitehall?

Besides the sugar and salt taxes, the other flagship policy in the report is even more revealing – vegetable prescriptions on the NHS. First of all, like taxing food, it plainly hasn’t been properly thought through. The NHS prescription charge is £9.35 and a bag of carrots from Tesco costs 40p. You would have to order a truckload of vegetables each time to make it worthwhile.

More importantly, this tells us a great deal about the way Dimbleby and apologists of the National Food Strategy see Britain. They surely are not under the impression that people cannot afford the 40p Tesco bag of carrots, especially given their apparent reliance on junk food (an 80g bag of carrot sticks in McDonald’s costs 79p.)

So what problem, then, is stopping people buying vegetables now which would be solved by prescribing them on the NHS? The only explanation is that Dimbleby thinks the working classes are either lazy or stupid – or both.

Obese people are not helpless victims of the maleficent junk food industry, waiting for the benevolent hand of government to reach down and rescue us from our plight. If Dimbleby thinks veg on the NHS will solve the obesity crisis, he must have a dim view of obese people. The attitude implied in his approach to the issue is patronising and infantilising.

Obesity is Britain’s next pandemic but public health nannies are asleep at the wheel. As food regulations follow the tired tobacco playbook, next year we might see doting parents queuing up in a sad line to pick up their reduced sugar, low fat NHS Easter eggs in their plain, unbranded boxes where the only splash of colour is a graphic image warning you of the health dangers of overindulging.

The public health lobby, which has the ear of government and claims to be acting in our best interests, needs to wake up. If we continue down this path, the obesity pandemic could become even more damaging for civil liberties and class relations than the last one. Despite an initial slap-down from Boris, the omens are not good. The growth of the nanny state is showing no signs of slowing down.

Politics.co.uk: MPs must stand up for civil liberties

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The government has unleashed an avalanche of new taxes and regulations aimed at making Britain healthier. The first was the soft drink sugar tax, which dates back to 2018, and the most recent is the ‘junk food’ ad ban, which has now been signed off by the government despite widespread outcry about the harm it will do to the advertising and broadcasting industries.

Interventionist measures like these have always comprehensively failed and will continue to do so. The UK’s obesity rates are higher than ever, with excess body fat responsible for more deaths than smoking every year since 2014 and over a million hospital admissions for obesity-related treatment in England in the year leading up to the pandemic.

When it comes to changing people’s behaviours for the sake of public health, it rather seems as though health regulators are still signed up to the ‘tobacco playbook’, having failed to question whether it’s fit for purpose in 2021. Be it calling for outright bans on advertising, excessive health warnings on packets and gratuitous lifestyle taxes, after thirty years the same health regulators appear to be asleep at the wheel. They have nothing new to add to the policy debate.

Those who run public health and claim to be acting in our best interests need to wake up. Obesity is shaping up to be our next pandemic and if we continue down this road, it might be even more damaging to British civil liberties than the last one. But the omens are not good – the failed interventionist obesity strategy is now being exported to other areas of government.

Take smoking, for instance. Before his departure from the health department, Matt Hancock set into motion a plan for a ‘smoke-free England by 2030’. Local authorities like Oxfordshire, who took it upon themselves to ban smoking for outdoor hospitality, were jumping the gun, but not by much. Nanny-statism is becoming the new normal.

Even when it comes to vaping – by far the most effective tool for helping people quit smoking, as it happens – it looks like our lifestyle freedoms are on the chopping block. The World Health Organisation has vaping in its sights and the government looks set to kowtow to the unaccountable bureaucrats at the expense of civil liberties.

Even our freedom of expression is under threat. Ofcom will be empowered by the online safety bill to crack down on ‘lawful but harmful’ content online, with the authority to impose huge fines, which risks making vast swathes of the internet unusable and creating two tiers of online expression. There are some extra tech policies for good measure, too, to ensure that service providers, as well as consumers, feel the sharp end of this government for no good reason, like Rishi Sunak’s wildly ill-thought-out global tech tax deal.

On all kinds of simple lifestyle choices, more restrictions seem to be coming down the road. The government even wants to decide for us how we spend our own money by introducing a £100 monthly cap on gambling – the list of reasons for our civil liberties to be thrown onto the fire grows and grows.

Conscientious MPs, most of whom are to be found on the Conservative back benches, must take up the mantle of civil liberties. MPs like Steve Baker, Nus Ghani and countless others have shown in the past how much they value individual freedoms. If they meant what they said, now is the time to show it. Civil liberties are under threat like never before. They must coalesce to defend freedom.

Time is running out. We urgently need a post-covid anti-nanny state coalition. While the government and opposition are in violent agreement about the crying need to interfere in people’s everyday decision-making, the voices of ordinary people who want to run their own lives and have the government leave them be must be heard in the halls of power.

Boris Johnson talked relatively recently of the need to roll back the “continuing creep of the nanny state”. He even promised to put an end to “sin taxes” before his election as leader of the Conservative party. He would at one time have called himself libertarian, speaking of Britain as a “land of liberty”.

It’s time for Johnson’s party to remind him of his ideological roots. When Labour is enthusiastically supporting a Tory government in introducing new taxes and regulations like this, something has gone wrong. MPs with even the slightest libertarian leanings must not stand by and watch this happen. There is a gaping need for a strong collective of voices speaking up for personal freedoms. We urgently need a Civil Liberties Research Group.

Politics.co.uk: The impending war with big tech

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The last few weeks have seen a substantial ramping up of rhetoric from Westminster towards big tech. Facebook’s dramatic show of power against – and subsequent capitulation to – the Australian government over its new law obliging it to pay news outlets to host their content made for gripping viewing, and it has since become clear that senior ministers across the British government were tuning in to the action.

Matt Hancock came bursting out of the blocks to declare himself a ‘great admirer’ of countries which have proposed laws forcing tech giants to pay for journalism. Rishi Sunak has been bigging-up this year’s G7 summit, which will be held in Cornwall. From the way he is talking, it sounds like he is preparing to lead an army of finance ministers from around the world into battle with Silicon Valley.

Meanwhile, Oliver Dowden, the cabinet minister with responsibility for media and technology, indicated that he has been chatting to his Australian counterparts to learn more about the thinking behind their policymaking process. He followed that up with a series of stark and very public warnings to the businesses themselves, promising to “keep a close eye” on Facebook and Twitter, voicing his “grave concern” over the way big tech companies are operating and threatening sanctions if they step out of line.

This one-way war of words comes against the backdrop of a menacing new regulatory body slowly looming into view. The Digital Markets Unit, a quango which is set to form part of the existing Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), will be the chief weapon in the government’s armoury. As things stand, we know very little about what it is intended to achieve.

Big tech in its current form is a young industry, still struggling with teething problems as it learns how to handle owning all the information in the world. There are plenty of areas where Facebook, Google, Amazon and countless others are arguably falling short in their practices, from users’ privacy to threats to journalists, which Dowden and others have picked up on.

But the natural instinct of state actors to step in has the potential to be cataclysmically damaging. The government is running out of patience with the free market and seems poised to intervene. Countless times, haphazard central policy has quashed innovation and sent private money tumbling out of the country. Against the backdrop of the forthcoming corporation tax rise, there is a fine balance to strike between effective regulation and excessive state interference.

The nature of government interventions is that they block innovation, and therefore progress. Superfluous regulation is like a dazed donkey milling about in the middle of the road, bringing the traffic to a halt. Of course, the donkey is then given a charity collection bucket and the power to oblige passers-by to contribute a slice of their income for the privilege of driving society forwards, generating unfathomable wealth and providing us all with access to free services which have improved our quality of life beyond measure.

As the government ponders the appropriate parameters of the new Digital Markets Unit and seeks to place arbitrary limits on what big tech companies can do for the first time in the history of their existence, it should consider users’ interests first. There is a strong case to be made for shoring up the rights of individuals and cracking down more harshly on abuse and other worrying trends. But let’s not fall into the same trap as our cousins Down Under in making online services more expensive to use and passing those costs down to consumers.

As the much-fabled ‘post-Brexit Global Britain’ begins to take shape, we have a valuable opportunity to set an example for the rest of the world on how to go about regulating the technology giants. The standards we will have to meet to do that are not terribly high. In essence, all the government needs to do is avoid the vast, swinging, ham-fisted meddling which has so often characterised attempts at regulation in the past and Britain can become something of a world leader in this field.

Politics.co.uk: UK should ‘set example’ by helping Uighurs

This article was co-written with Jaya Pathak and published on Politics.co.uk.

The Chinese Communist Party is committing an appalling genocide against the Uighur Muslims. A recent report from the BBC revealed the nature of the systematic rape and torture that residents of Xinjiang are subject to. This is more than just a human rights violation – this is an attempted ethnic cleansing, accompanied by the most heinous violence.

As we speak, more than 3 million Uighurs are being detained in concentration camps, with many subject to rape, forced labour, organ harvesting, torture, starvation and mass incarceration. The Chinese Communist Party is implementing a campaign of forced sterilisation, targeting at least 80% of Uighur women of childbearing age. It is also carrying out the removal of nearly 1 million children from their families. The children are being forcibly moved to state-controlled boarding schools where they are taught never to use their mother tongue and to abandon their religion.

The Chinese government shows no hint of repentance and no intention of stopping what it is doing any time soon.

While the nature of what the Chinese government is doing is clear-cut, the politics of how to respond is more complicated. Campaigners are currently on their third attempt to push through the so-called ‘genocide amendment’ to the trade bill, against sustained opposition  from the government. The result of this back-and-forth is that, in the government’s view, executive power over trade matters is safeguarded – but the Uighurs are no closer to safety.

Regardless of whether the government is opposed to the legislative route of confronting the Chinese Communist Party, it must take the humanitarian step of allowing victims of appalling violence and persecution to seek refuge in Britain by granting refugee status to the Uighurs.

Such a move would not be unprecedented. There is a strong patriotic tradition of Britain offering refuge to oppressed peoples throughout history. Take, for instance, the Kindertransport – a government mission to rescue thousands of endangered children from Nazi Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland shortly before the start of the Second World War.

More recently, Britain created  a new visa scheme for British National Overseas (BNO) passport holders in Hong Kong, who have also been on the receiving end of some of the worst instincts of the dictatorial regime in Beijing. That system is now up and running  – it has already enjoyed considerable success, with Hong Kong residents signing up to it en masse. There is no compassionate reason why we should not now do the same – or more – for the Uighur Muslims.

Remarkably, no country has yet taken the step of offering a safe haven for Uighurs, apparently cowed into submission by Beijing’s soft power. Alongside its heinous domestic policy, the Chinese government is engaged in a concerted effort to expand its influence across Asia and Africa using, among other things, its homegrown covid vaccine. In the particularly disturbing case of Turkey, Chinese dissidents are reportedly being deported in exchange for extra vaccine doses.

Sentiment around extending an arm of friendship to the oppressed Uighur population is beginning to brew in some countries, but it remains in the very early stages and campaigners are having to push against the tide. In the US, president Biden has named the Uighurs as one of the groups set to be admitted under his new refugee program – but his recent comments, in which he appeared to dismiss China’s actions as ‘different cultural norms’, don’t exactly inspire hope.

We don’t have forever to pontificate over if and how we should act to help the Uighurs. The clock is ticking. With every day that passes without government action, more and more Uighurs are being detained, assaulted and oppressed.

There is a vacancy to lead an international coalition on this. The US is moving at a snail’s pace and the EU is too enthralled by trade relations with China to take any action. The British government should move to fill that gap, dispelling its newfound reputation for Beijing apologism and setting a humanitarian example for the rest of the world to follow by offering oppressed Uighurs a home in the UK.

Having traded with China for decades and contributed to its enormous wealth and power, we owe a debt to the victims of the Chinese government’s atrocities. We must offer them aid in their time of need.