A Johnson government, with its tendency to lean towards state intervention, and a pandemic, which lead to restrictions not seen for decades, has left the UK in an era where the big hand of Whitehall is the norm.
Rolling back the size of the state was put front and centre of Liz Truss’ leadership campaign, and she has promised to govern “as a Conservative”. In almost the same breath, she will need to put together a plan to prevent people from freezing to death this winter. Her plans to lead as a “low interventionist Thatcherite” will meet significant resistance in a climate where the public expects the government to step in.
But it can work. One example of its success is tobacco policy. The government has committed to a target of being “Smokefree” – where less than 5 per cent of people smoke – by 2030. We have made significant progress, with a dramatic decline in smoking rates, but not from big state intervention. Rates plummeted from just under 21 per cent in 2011 to less than 15 per cent in 2020 after e-cigarette use went mainstream.
Traditional tobacco control policies – tinkering with the legal smoking age, ghastly pictures on packaging, and high taxation – have failed by comparison. However, there are still around 7 million people smoking, mostly concentrated in the poorest and most disadvantaged socio-economic areas.
As we have learned from the failure of the war on drugs, there is no magic wand to make drugs disappear. We also cannot eradicate nicotine use, which has been a human attraction for millennia. But we can recommend substituting cigarettes with less harmful examples.
Heated tobacco is laying waste to traditional smoking. In Japan, cigarette sales have dropped by half in just six years and the country is already seeing significant declines in smoking-related diseases. Another option, snus, a tobacco product pasteurised to remove all carcinogens, has led to plummeting smoking rates in Sweden. Yet, it has been banned in the EU – and the UK – since the 1990s.
There is a real opportunity here for the government to eliminate health disparities by getting people off cigarettes, but only by recognising that big state intervention is not always the only solution. Presenting smokers with a diverse reduced-harm market of non-combustible nicotine products can help drive down smoking rates and level up health disparities.
The promotion of tobacco harm reduction by way of safer nicotine products is an inherently Conservative (low intervention) policy. The current tobacco control approach is interventionist, costly – and ineffective. Reduced risk nicotine alternatives are largely cost-free as smokers who switch will buy their products with their own money.
As Liz Truss takes up the mantle, she should look at how a policy like this could be replicated across different briefs. It won’t be as catchy as tax cuts or grand, state-funded projects to solve all of the ills of the world.
Indeed, there will be instances where the government needs to step in. There will be moments, like the current energy crisis, when the markets cannot deliver the speed of the change needed, at the time it is needed.
This is not, as many posit, a justification for big government. In fact, it is the opposite. We need to reduce the size of the state where we can, so we can wield its power only in the times when it is most needed, to the scale that is absolutely necessary. Instead of trying to think up genius new policy ideas, we should look at the alternatives already out there, and see how we can encourage their use.