The EU: going mental over menthol

This article originally appeared on Spiked-online, August 21 2013

Last month, the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) committee of the European Parliament approved a new Tobacco Products Directive, which includes a series of pointlessly illiberal measures to make both smoking and alternatives to smoking even harder. Among the policies are an EU-wide ban on menthol and other flavoured cigarettes. The legislation also calls for restrictions on how tobacco goods are sold, the size of packets you can have for roll-your-own tobacco, as well as requiring electronic cigarettes to be regulated in the same fashion as medicines. The bill will be voted on by the full parliament in the autumn.

There are many reasons why we should all – smokers and non-smokers alike – be appalled and concerned at such an authoritarian measure.

Just over a year ago, rules came into force in England to hide cigarettes behind counters. Standardising cigarette packs (‘plain packaging’) was being loudly discussed as the next move against smokers, following Australia’s decision to implement such a policy. With such measures, as well as the continually rising taxation imposed on tobacco, it is easy to see why smokers’ rights campaigners have frequently argued that the aim of puritan politicians and public-health campaigners is to ban smoking altogether: prohibition.

The new directive makes this ambition crystal clear. An entire category of cigarettes is to be outlawed. What is next to be banned? King-size cigarettes? Smooth cigarettes? While the plan to introduce plain packs in the UK has been shelved for now, some new law or regulation restricting smoking – from Westminster or Brussels – seems to have become an annual event.

What is particularly shocking about this legislation is just how offensive and patronising it is. Indeed, lawmakers in Brussels targeted, among other things, menthol and other flavoured cigarettes because supposed ‘experts’ believe that such cigarettes hold a unique appeal for children. Come again? Are these the very same children who are not able to see cigarettes behind shop counters? The same children who are not able to buy any form of cigarettes until they are over the age of 18? The generation of children, moreover, who have never seen tobacco advertised, anywhere, ever? Ah yes, the very same children, who are told constantly as they grow up that smoking is lethal? Set against these barriers to taking up the habit, making cigarettes mildly minty is inconsequential.

So draconian are the current laws on cigarettes that campaigners are reduced to such ridiculous measures to try to deal with recalcitrant puffers. Any claim that depriving smokers of flavouring will make a noticeable dent in smoking rates is difficult to take seriously. Depriving smokers of the simple right to decide how their cigarettes will taste is a much bigger problem. It is symbolic of the outlook that suggests that adults must be treated like children.

Menthol cigarette lovers with a healthy bank balance could always buy in bulk now, following the example of former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who has reportedly bought 38,000 menthol cigarettes to ensure he never needs to go without his minty hit.

Other smokers, however, will be forced to turn to the black market. After all, if there is one thing to learn from the history books on prohibition, it is that prohibition does not work. Today, there is already a sizeable black market for tobacco products in the EU, mostly a consequence of the high taxation on cigarettes. For instance, counterfeit and contraband sales of cigarettes in 2012 rose an estimated 0.4 per cent to 65.5 billion cigarettes, according to a recent report. Further bans and restrictions will only exacerbate this situation.

To paraphrase the American economist and social theorist, Thomas Sowell, it is always ominous how someone can go from disliking something to calling for the government to legislate against it. This latest EU directive is a good example of the tastes of a minority being foisted on the whole of society – something that is not only ominous, but undemocratic, insulting and absurd.

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