The Big Debate is a regular Badger feature which brings the spirit of competitive debating to the printed page. Two writers tackle a contentious topic, representing polarised views. They might not agree with what they write – on this page, they represent a viewpoint, not an individual. This week, they discuss whether smoking should be illegal.


– By Alex Valeri

I am a smoker. People enjoy smoking and think that it adds something to their personality on the most superficial level—whether we like it or not. Smoking gives you an edge; like you know you’re killing yourself, but you don’t care. For me to argue that smoking should be illegal is highly hypocritical but it comes from an internal debate that all smokers have… Should I quit and why did I start in the first place?

I wish I’d never started; yet here I am, smoking a rollie whilst I write this. The problem lies in the availability of tobacco and the prominence of its use. As well as the fact that tobacco production is rooted in exploitative supply chains that hurt people at all levels.

Tobacco supply chains are some of the most exploitative in the world. Billions are made in profits for tobacco companies every year. Tobacco lobbying of government is detrimental to the political and social process; fat cats in small rooms smoking cigars readily comes to mind.

Tobacco is one of the most heavily regulated commodities in the world. Its history in Europe embodies the capitalist system; mass commodification of products like sugar, tobacco, and tea brought capitalism to life. These were traded to the advantage of the British Empire who profiteered from the labour of the people who worked on the ground. The exploitation of labour in the ‘New World’ was largely within a system of slavery that lasted until the late 19th century. 

Tobacco conglomerates continue to exploit labour all over the world. Recently, a Guardian study into the evils of tobacco farming focused on the exploitation of child labour in Malawi. The study found that the British American Tobacco (BAT) company place high demands on the tenant farmers that grow their tobacco. This heavy burden often falls on to the families (often children) of the farmers, as they are drawn into a laborious day-to-day struggle of hard labour. BAT reap the profits of “unjust enrichment”, and continue to induce poverty in regions where their tobacco is grown. That is just the effects of growing tobacco. A poisonous commodity with a dark colonial past, choking farmers that slave over the land to meet unrealistic quotas and high demand. 

Tobacco is crippling to agricultural laborers that rely on its production; it is also crippling to the smokers’ health. Increasing the chance of multiple types of cancer and usually leading to an early death. These are the basics that we have been told for decades and have ceased to implement significant policy change.

 Smoking puts massive strain on the NHS. Of the many reasons why smoking should be illegal, this is perhaps the strongest. Every year the tobacco industry kills 7,000,000 people. In Britain alone, 78,000 people die from smoking related illnesses per year.

 The NHS must provide a service to every person that suffers. What is the alternative? You lose your right to healthcare if you smoke/ if you have ever smoked? This is not the path to take. It seems a lot simpler to deny people the option to purchase the good legally. 

The sale of tobacco should certainly be illegal, and so should smoking in public. Smoking is a choice, but one that negatively impacts others— through litter, smell, polluted air, and the staggering cost on the NHS of smoking related illnesses. Smoking is a dirty habit and a private privilege. It should not be forced on others in public spaces. 

The debate of the legality of smoking is very relevant from a post-Brexit perspective. Recently, changes to EU tobacco laws will make menthol cigarettes, some rolling tobaccos, skinny cigarettes, and other tobacco products illegal as of May 2020 in attempts to stop young people from smoking.  The EU’s Tobacco Products Directive, which was passed in 2014, is an example of an EU law that would be automatically codified into the British Constitution pre-Brexit. This means it would become law without being checked by British government.

Until the end of 2020 these EU laws will continue to stay in effect. But, post-Brexit Britain may see a rejection of or change to these new tobacco laws. This could see a roll-back of certain positive measures that have been taken to reduce the proliferation of tobacco and its use. 

While smoking remains a choice, the NHS is already breathless from blows of austerity. Smoking puts further strain on our national health and the NHS bears the brunt of it from people either seeking advice on how to quit or being treated for smoking-related issues. Breathing is easy and vital… smoking makes it hard. This alone is enough justification to make it illegal.


– By Ella Rawson

There are two laws regarding smoking. The first one being the legal age for buying cigarettes which is 18, and the second one which is the illegality to smoke in public spaces that are enclosed or substantially enclosed areas. These policies do not inhibit people’s freedom of choice, to smoke or not to smoke.

Smoking cigarettes should be legal, for the simple fact that each individual should be able to make autonomous decisions over how they live their life. The labels on cigarette packets, such as: ‘smoking clogs your arteries’ and ‘smoking kills quit now’ substantially informs smokers of the risks they are taking. Smokers are able to make a choice whilst being aware of the consequence. 

If the Government wanted to make smoking illegal, they would have by now, so why haven’t they? When smokers buy a pack of cigarettes, at an average of £10 a pack, around 4 to 5 pounds of that is spent on tax. Meaning that smokers in Britain contribute around 12 billion pounds in tax per year just for smoking. Arguably, paying for a significant amount of National Health service burden.

Even if smoking did become illegal, it would not stop people from smoking. Tobacco would be sold on the black market, where purity could not be verified, and tobacco would increase in its likelihood as a gateway drug. Secondly, it may lead people to smoke inside their households, leaving children at higher risk of smoke related health problems.

 The major issue with smoking is the addictiveness of nicotine. The better solution would be to offer better services and access to support for people to quit. 

One of the other issues with the idea of making smoking illegal is that the question is raised: what else should be banned? ‘In a new analysis, researchers have estimated that 11 million deaths around the world were related to poor diet’ wrote the NHS on a study of the Global Burden of Disease 2017. Should we be banning McDonalds too? 

Sugar is still hitting record highs as the driving factor for diseases and deaths. But products containing sugar don’t state ‘sugar may be addictive, be careful with your consumption’. So really tobacco packaging can be seen as already responsible and preventative. Preventable deaths are caused by sugar, alcohol or even driving, but there aren’t warnings on bottles, sugar or cars. Every society has their vices, if we want to get rid of one, won’t we have to get rid of many others. 

Well, the government profits massively on all of those products, so of course making anything unhealthy illegal is pretty much impossible. If tobacco isn’t your vice, it will be something different. Freedom of choice and autonomy is very important, we should be allowed to choose our vices. The first step is to be aware of the risks one takes by doing so. I believe tobacco companies and the education system responsible address the risks of smoking. Whereas, many people are still very unaware of the dangers of processed sugar and it is sold everywhere, from hospitals to schools.

Even though I think smoking should not be illegal, I do think that the rules around where you can smoke should be stricter so that passive smoking is reduced. Individuals’ decision to smoke should not impact others and sadly there have been countless cases of people getting cancer from passive smoking. 

Criminalizing smoking would restrict one’s freedom of choice. A smoker probably knows the consequence of smoking and takes this decision into their own hands. More so, if smoking should become illegal, to lower rates of ‘preventable deaths’ then alcohol and sugar should surely be illegal too. But the Government would never do that because of the detrimental impact it would have on tax revenues. Even though it should not be illegal, maybe instating stricter rules on smokers may discourage smoking overall.

Image credit: Paolo Neo

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