Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Good news, plain and simple

For somebody who thinks that Michael Green's Grant Shapps' extra-parliamentary income stream (web scraping) was less morally dubious than Kenneth Clarke's (tobacco), today is a good news day:
Plain packaging for cigarettes has been given the go-ahead after the plans were approved in the House of Lords. Peers backed the plans without a vote after MPs voted in favour last week.
The decision itself is good. The wider precedent it sets is even better:
That trademark registrations do not offer a right to use the sign also lends weight to the conclusion that plain packaging does not constitute a de facto expropriation of tobacco brands and does not expose the countries which adopt this measure (such as England, Australia and Ireland) to the risk of having to pay damages in compensation to tobacco producers under the European Convention on Human Rights and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights (which protect, among other fundamental rights, the right to property).
There are good reasons to think that this measure will work, which is probably why the industry has been fighting so hard against it.

As far as I'm concerned, a simple good news story.

If we ever had a more rational drugs policy, it might get a lot more complicated than that. Policy makers would have to think a lot harder about when the level of harm is sufficient to warrant restricting the right to advertise a legal product.

As a study in the Lancet pointed out, there is good reason to think that some substances which are currently illegal (e.g. ecstasy) are less harmful than the legal duo of alcohol and tobacco. Would you still consider some substances (e.g. heroin) so harmful that they should stay banned? At what level of harm would you start to restrict advertising (you might be able to make a perfectly rational case for removing branding from, say, alcohol bottles, but letting people buy khat in branded packets, as opposed to banning the latter, as we do at the moment)?

But, for the foreseeable future, inertia and ignorance will probably see to it that's what's banned stays banned and what's legal stays legal, subject to a few tweaks. And this is a tweak in the right direction. It means fewer hearts stopping prematurely, fewer tumours needing to be cut from living flesh, fewer people struggling for breath, fewer people being orphaned, or widowed, or losing a friend, or sibling in what should be the prime of life.

The harm done makes Michael Green's Grant Shapps' profitable sideline of releasing virtual parasites into Google's advertising ecosystem sound trivial in comparison. Green Shapps might be the sort of spivvy chancer who probably ought to have "would you have bought a used car from this man?" chiseled into his tombstone as an epitaph, when his time comes, but compared with that cheery, solid, dependable old tobacco shill Ken Clarke, he's no worse than a naughty boy caught scrumping apples.

As a personality, I still quite like Kenneth Clarke. Somebody (I think it was Simon Hoggart) once said that he was the one senior Tory who gave a convincing impression of being a fully paid-up member of the human race and I know what he meant. He was clearly a rounded personality with interests outside politics (and not just the sort you had to declare). He was calm and unflappable. He seemed to say what he thought, rather than channelling the usual on-message unspeak and, if attacked, calmly told you why he thought his opponent was talking nonsense, rather than squirting the random spray of bluster, ad hominem, or outraged victimhood exuded by lesser politicians under pressure. Green Shapps comes across as a pipsqueak in comparison.

But for all that, by their fruits ye shall know them. One of Kevin Spacey's best lines in The Usual Suspects was 'The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist.' His second greatest trick was getting people to like him despite themselves.