Martin Whitlock - political writings 2001-2004

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Calling "time" on prohibition

14 June 2004

John Reid's remarks about smoking are a timely reminder that behavioural change depends upon providing attractive alternatives. Mere enforcement is not enough.

The Health Secretary's suggestion, at a conference last week, that middle class reformers should lay off people on sink estates for whom smoking might be their only pleasure, makes an important point about political process. It acknowledges that people do the things that they do because they want to. It is not the job of government to try to prevent them.

What government can and should do is to steer people away from behaviour that is bad for themselves and society by providing them with a real choice. If a person is so placed that a cigarette is really the highlight of their day, the only thing that is going to help is social improvement to put other, healthier pleasures on the menu.

This is presumably what Dr Reid meant when he qualified his remarks with the New Labour formula "Tough on smoking; tough on the causes of smoking". The cause of smoking is, the theory goes, social deprivation (which was also the cause of crime in Tony Blair's original coinage), so getting rid of deprivation will do much to solve the problem.

Social improvement is something everyone will cheer for, but the toughness on smoking bit requires more care. It may, perhaps, make sense to discourage advertising, although here we are still with the causes rather than the act of smoking. But measures to make smoking invisible have definite drawbacks. A child is better off in the street or park with a mother who is smoking than they would be cooped up with her in a smoked-filled home. And a practice that is out of sight may be out of mind, too. Once banished from public places, the issue of smoking may drop down the agenda. If this happens, that promised social improvement on the sink estates may be forgotten, too.

The issue here is the danger of marginalising something that a large number of people choose to do. In part, it is a question of respect; smokers at the margins of society may be short of alternative pleasures, but that doesn't entitle people to deride the pleasures that they do have. And what is true for tobacco is true for other things, too. Following Dr Reid's argument, the government should get off the backs of the three and a half million people in the country for whom cannabis is part of the pleasure in their lives.

There has never been a sensible reason for cannabis to be illegal while tobacco and alcohol are not, but there are those who would find in this the logic not for legalising cannabis but for banning the other two. A middle position asserts that, just because society is lumbered with two harmful but legal drugs, there is no reason why it should legitimise a third. This argument acknowledges the difficulty of changing the status quo - that people like to drink and to smoke, and may object to being prevented, and that, not unimportantly, the alcohol and tobacco industries generate employment and revenue that society would sorely miss.

But the criminalisation of something that is widely practised merely compounds the social problems created by the practice itself. What Dr Reid is pointing out, albeit indirectly, is that the things that people choose to do should not be closeted or marginalised but should actively direct government policy. People's actions tell far more about their lives, aspirations and views than do the opinions solicited from them through elections, opinion polls and focus groups. The fact that people smoke, take drugs, drink too much, drive too fast etc. illustrates the real state of society. Neither condemnation nor prohibition will address this, even though the same people are all too willing to join in that condemnation and exhort that prohibition.

If politicians are serious about changing the way that people behave, they have to start from where people are, accept that they are generally there for good reasons, and offer them desirable or, at the very least, feasible alternatives to move them in a different direction. Prohibition has no logical part in that armoury, because it cannot work in circumstances where the alternative is not present. As the Health Secretary pointed out, for certain people in certain circumstances, smoking may really be the only way to get through the day. To separate that person from their cigarettes will only cause harm. The same applies to a heroin addict and their gear; the fact that smoking is still legal and heroin is not does not change the force of this argument.

Meanwhile, in Lisbon, the police have decided not to bother football fans smoking cannabis, which is readily available. Experience in Holland suggests that stoned fans are a pleasure whereas drunk ones are a menace. Offering people cannabis to chill them out may not be the British government's preferred solution to anti-social behaviour, but the example illustrates neatly the principle behind behavioural choice. The solution towards which people are actively drawn is more likely to work than the one they're pushed into.

This decision of the Lisbon police serves as a reminder that intoxication originates as a social activity. It is celebrated for its relaxing or stimulating effect on the mind, and the impact this has on human interaction when people experience it together. That is why people drink together, and why gentlemen used to sit around the after-dinner table smoking cigars. Chilling out with a joint is no different; it changes the mood of the group in ways that people find agreeable.

The problem with alcohol is that the socially agreeable phase of mild intoxication can be followed by aggression. The effect of this is aggravated in a social context and may lead to fighting. Government has attempted to take an enlightened view. It has reformed access and licensing laws in the hope of reclaiming drinking as a social pleasure. Cultural change of this sort is not easy, particularly because the initial liberalisation can cause an increase in the excess that it is designed to combat. But the principle of giving people the space and opportunity to develop the social practices that suit them is a sound one, not least because the alternative, prohibitive, approach invariably fails.


©Copyright Martin Whitlock 2004