A month after Rishi Sunak announced the government’s smoking ban, its inclusion in the King’s Speech marks its first step towards becoming law. The government will propose a bill increasing the minimum smoking age by one year every year, so that as the next generation grows up, they will never reach the legal smoking age and will never legally be able to buy cigarettes.
This policy has been roundly criticised by experts for a wide range of flaws. For instance, it seems likely to worsen the growing problem of the illicit tobacco trade, repeating the mistakes of the war on drugs and making consumers less safe in the process. All while funnelling money into the hands of criminal gangs rather than the legal market, and causing the government to lose out on tobacco tax revenues.
It also makes the mistake of lumping vaping in with smoking; the bill’s full name is the Tobacco and Vapes Bill. It includes various measures to crack down on vape sales, despite the fact that vaping is much lower-risk than smoking and a helpful quitting tool. The measures are supposedly motivated by a moral panic over children vaping, an enormously exaggerated problem which could be more easily fixed by enforcing existing laws rather than passing new ones.
Why, then, has this Conservative government thrown its weight behind a ban? To find the answer, we need to look to the other side of the world. A staggered smoking ban of this kind was first announced in New Zealand in 2021, before it was eventually recommended to the British government by the Khan Review in 2022.
In the post-Covid world, more than ever before, we need policy based on science, not virtue-signalling. Unfortunately, some parts of the political class seem determined to lurch for feel-good big-state public health policies copied almost word-for-word from left-leaning governments elsewhere in the world. And it might not stop here.
If New Zealand’s tobacco policy is the gateway to the British government copying more Kiwi policies, we could be in for a rough ride. For example, the government of New Zealand has also made clear its plans to start taxing meat, albeit indirectly, to tackle greenhouse gas emissions from animal farming.
When Rishi Sunak ruled out a meat tax in his environmental policy speech in September, he was mocked by many for abolishing a policy which, they say, was never going to happen anyway. However, as net-zero deadlines begin to loom and the Overton window of politics drifts even further towards big-state solutions, it seems likely punitive taxes like this were always going to be on the agenda.
If a future government does decide to copy New Zealand once again and pursue a meat tax, it will be making a terrible mistake. The reasons a meat tax is flawed are too many to name, but perhaps the most interesting to an environmentalist is the fact that it simply will not work in its ambition to help stop climate change.
We know from countless examples that taxes on consumer goods like this rarely succeed in changing behaviours in the desired direction. For instance, the sugar tax on soft drinks was intended to help tackle obesity. Instead, despite what its proponents may say, it succeeded only in making the poor poorer by increasing the cost of food shopping.
The reason sin taxes don’t work is because consumers are resourceful enough to circumvent them. The evidence shows when faced with sugary drinks costing more because of new taxes, shoppers do one of three things: fork out the extra cash to get the drink they want, switch to other high-sugar options like fruit juices, or buy cheaper own-brand drinks high in sugar but lower in overall quality. There is no reason to think a meat tax would be any more successful than the sugar tax.
Even if a meat tax did succeed in dissuading people from eating meat, that would not necessarily be desirable. Shoppers would have to replace meat with some other protein source in their diets, and it won’t be long before they become bored of lentils and beans. Most likely, they will turn to popular soy-based meat substitutes like tofu and tempeh, which already sell well among vegetarians and vegans.
Soy, which is made from soybeans, is arguably much worse for the environment than meat. A short-sighted focus on the greenhouse gas emissions of animal farming leads to various other negative impacts on the planet slipping through unnoticed. For instance, soybean production causes soil erosion, which has a substantial impact on farmers’ ability to use that land to grow other crops in future.
The manufacturing process for soy has also been known to cause droughts. It is very inefficient in its use of land, so it fuels deforestation at an alarming rate. As if that wasn’t enough, soy’s greenhouse gas emissions are substantial, too. Taxing meat won’t save the planet if it only means we all eat more soy.
Innovation, not tax, is already solving the problem of meat’s environmental impact. One startup backed by Bill Gates is developing supplements for cows to reduce their methane emissions. Given the huge rewards on offer for whoever invents the technology to make mass meat production sustainable, this issue will receive plenty of venture capital funding in the coming years. Meanwhile, lab-grown meat innovation is coming along in leaps and bounds, all at no cost to consumers.
Top-down policies like meat taxes, smoking bans, and mass diet changes are unnecessary. Our politicians do not need to copy New Zealand’s policy direction. As individuals, all we need to do is sit back with a burger and let the free market do its thing.