How do you feel about being told what to do, particularly when it comes to decisions around your health?
Most of us, I suspect, think we should be left to make our own decisions (and our own mistakes).
But I also think most of us would accept that there are areas where the government should step in and regulate. It is a tricky balance – if you get it wrong, you end up pleasing no one.
So I was surprised to learn that the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak – someone I’d have thought was more of a ‘say-no-to-the-nanny-state’ sort of guy – is now thinking about following the example of New Zealand, which has one of the toughest anti-smoking policies in the world.
Under rules introduced there last year, it’s now illegal to sell tobacco to anyone born on or after January 1, 2009.
A YouGov poll found a ban on junk food adverts before 9pm is supported by 62 per cent and opposed by just 17 per cent
If we copied that here, it would mean anyone now aged 14 or younger, would never be able to smoke legally in the UK. And that is quite an extraordinary idea.
As well as getting tough on teenage smokers, there is a lot of pressure on the UK government to ban disposable vapes, with a recent YouGov poll showing that 77 per cent of people are in favour of doing this.
I hate smoking and would welcome further restrictions. I would also love to see other measures put in place to help to improve the nation’s health, such as finding ways to cut soaring sales of ultra-processed foods.
But are bans the answer, and what are the alternatives?
There is a long history of health-related bans that have been spectacularly successful, and some that have been dismal failures.
In 1921, for example, a chemical engineer called Thomas Midgley, who was working for General Motors, discovered that adding a chemical called tetraethyllead to petrol made engines run more smoothly.
The major drawback, known at the time, is that lead is poisonous and especially harmful to children’s brains. Despite the very obvious dangers, leaded fuel was only finally banned, worldwide, in 2021, 100 years after it was introduced.
This is an example of a health ban that I’m sure we’d all support.
But around the same time that Midgley was working on his discovery, which would go on to kill and damage millions of children, politicians in the U.S. were passing legislation intended to protect Americans from another, extremely popular toxin: alcohol.
The Volstead Act of 1920 banned the manufacture, transportation and sale of all ‘intoxicating liquors’ and led to the era now known as Prohibition.
The ban led to dramatic falls in deaths from cirrhosis of the liver and alcohol-related admissions to mental hospitals, and arrests for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct. But lots of people love drinking so it also led to the sale of vast amounts of illegal hooch, the rise of organised crime and Al Capone. The law was finally repealed in 1933.
Rishi Sunak is thinking about following the example of New Zealand, which has one of the toughest anti-smoking policies in the world
These days, governments generally prefer a combination of taxation and restricting advertising, rather than outright bans. And that approach can be very effective. Fifty years ago, when I was a teenager, half the country smoked, now it’s just 14 per cent. That’s partly because successive governments made it expensive (cigarettes cost around £13, 80 per cent of that tax) and partly because a ban on smoking in pubs and public places made smoking much less sociable. It also led to some dramatic falls in rates of conditions such as heart disease.
Sadly, the downward decline in those diseases has reversed, thanks to soaring rates of obesity, which now kills more people than smoking (note to the PM). There’s no way you can ban people from eating junk food — not only is it everywhere but you also have to ensure there are affordable alternatives.
But there are lots of things that could be done to nudge our behaviour, many of which Boris Johnson planned to introduce before he fell from power.
These include the end of BOGOF (Buy One Get One Free) sales on foods high in fat and sugar — their main purpose, after all, is to make you eat more junk food. You rarely see BOGOF offers on fresh veg or fish.
Other plans included a ban on adverts for junk food and sweets aimed at children, online and before 9pm on TV. These measures are popular — a YouGov poll found a ban on junk food adverts before 9pm is supported by 62 per cent and opposed by just 17 per cent — but almost all the anti-obesity strategies Boris loudly promoted have been kicked into the long grass.
With one in five children now overweight or obese when they get to primary school, and the number of obese adults projected to soon outnumber those of a healthy weight within the next five years, there is a desperate need for action. Yes, ban smoking in the young but we also need to be thinking about diet.
Waiting and doing nothing is not the answer.