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Drink, smoke, eat: prohibition today

I am producing and chairing this discussion on our changing attitudes towards personal pleasure as part of the Battle of Ideas Festival at the Barbican Centre, London.

Drink, smoke, eat: prohibition today
Sunday 21 October, 5.00pm until 6.15pm, Garden Room Under the Spotlight

Are we entering a new prohibitionist era? Drinking and even smoking are still perfectly legal, but there is a palpable sense that they are less acceptable than they once were. Cigarettes have become far more expensive thanks to punitive taxes, and the authorities would like to do something similar with alcohol. The spread of ‘no drinking’ zones in public places also seems to follow the pattern of smoking bans, which now cover every indoor public space and many outdoor ones too. So are we witnessing prohibition by stealth? Instead of banning certain activities, is the state trying render them socially unacceptable?

Putting smokers beyond the social pale certainly seemed to be health secretary Andrew Lansley’s objective when he explained the decision to implement a ‘plain packaging’ policy for cigarettes: ‘[It] is about moving to a place where tobacco and smoking isn’t part of normal life.’ An Australian court’s decision to uphold an even more extreme plain packaging policy has paved the way for similar moves worldwide. And where official anti-smoking policies have gone, anti-booze strategies look set to follow.

Dr Vivienne Nathanson of the British Medical Association was angered recently by the proximity of booze to other food stuffs. ‘We have to start denormalising alcohol,’ she said. So might we see ‘plain packaging’ for alcohol too? And will that other bane of public health, so-called junk food, be next for the denormalisation treatment? With a black market already blossoming for tax-free tobacco, can we expect the rise of home-brew and moonshine, or even organised crime dealing in booze as it does with other illicit drugs?

More fundamentally, is it right that the government, aided and abetted by health professionals, seeks to change and mould our behaviour? Or should we be free to determine our own social norms, what is normal and what is not, rather than have these decided for us? In the past, those calling for abstinence, such as the nineteenth-century Temperance movement, did so in moral terms: alcohol damaged and inhibited that which was considered virtuous, be it hard work or good judgement. Is there a moral argument being made today against boozing or smoking? And if not, what does that tell us about the contemporary drive towards the ‘denormalisation’ of certain forms of behaviour? Or is it simply a good thing that the government is looking out for us, encouraging us to adopt lifestyles which won’t cost the NHS millions or make town centres no-go areas on a Saturday night? Are we witnessing a sensible attempt to change our behaviour for the better, or an assault by stealth on our everyday freedoms?


Dr Sarah Jarvis
GP; fellow, Royal College of General Practitioners; BBC1 One Show doctor; author, Women's Health for Life

Rob Lyons
deputy editor, spiked; writer on science and risk; author, Panic on a Plate: how society developed an eating disorder

Dr Michael Nelson
director of research and nutrition, Children's Food Trust

Chris Snowdon
author, Velvet Glove, Iron Fist and The Art of Suppression: Pleasure, Panic and Prohibition since 1800

Christine Thompson
Manager, UK government relations, SABMiller


  1. Start quitting from tobacco smoking now. Try electronic cigarettes for gradual cessation of the habit.


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