Jason Reed: Oxfordshire’s plan to become smoke free is yet another example of state overreach

2 Jun

Jason Reed is the founder of Young Voices UK and a policy fellow with the Consumer Choice Center.

In February of last year, Ansaf Azhar, the director of public health for Oxfordshire county council, unveiled the “Oxfordshire Tobacco Control Strategy”. Azhar had decided that the proportion of people living in Oxfordshire who smoke – 12 per cent – was too high and needed to be slashed. When fewer than five per cent of people smoke, an area can be considered “smoke free”. Azhar made it his mission to make Oxfordshire England’s first smoke-free county.

The Oxfordshire Tobacco Control Strategy was signed off by the county council in principle in May last year. You would be forgiven for thinking that since then, the director of public health at a local authority might have had more pressing matters to attend to than smoking. But Azhar has apparently continued his crusade against cigarettes undeterred.

He has now horrified right-thinking people up and down the country by declaring the council’s intention to ban smoking for outdoor hospitality. Although the plan currently lacks an implementation timetable or any other firm commitment, the fact that it is part of the plan at all says some very worrying things about the direction we’re heading in.

In the new world order of the nanny state, everything can be neatly categorised into good and bad. Everything is black and white – it’s all either vital or morally reprehensible. Once it is accepted that an activity is objectively “bad”, who could possibly oppose its being banned?

Of course, the real world, outside the offices of “directors of public health”, is rather different. It is not all black and white. There are lots of shades of grey. But nuance and freedom of choice aren’t all that fashionable these days.

Unfortunately for smokers, cigarettes have been deemed a social evil. Their existence is so objectively awful that the reasoning behind drastic measures to wipe them from the face of the earth doesn’t even need justifying. The result is that ludicrous policy proposals like the Oxfordshire Tobacco Control Strategy can be signed off and made reality with startlingly little scrutiny from those we elect to represent us and safeguard our civil liberties.

If you can bear it, I recommend a cursory read of the offending document, for novelty value if nothing else. It talks not of blanket bans, sweeping restrictions and ill-thought-out curbs on our freedoms, but instead of “creating smoke free environments”, as though we are being given a gift of something new to enjoy and ought to be grateful.

Most troubling is the way the document’s authors seem to be in complete denial that they are wielding the tools of the state at all. They write: “The interventions required to successfully de-normalise smoking and achieve a smoke free Oxfordshire may be considered as “nanny statist” or an assault on personal choice by some people. The whole system approach to make smoking less visible is not banning the choice of people who choose to smoke. It aims to create smoke free environments in more places in our communities, protecting the free choice of the nine out of ten residents of Oxfordshire who choose not to smoke.”

Oh, you thought our harsh new restrictions on what you can and can’t do in public were an assault on your freedom, did you? Don’t worry – if you look carefully, you’ll find that bans on common activities actually give you more freedom, not less.

The counter-factual logic behind the introduction of new regulations in the name of “public health” knows no bounds. If the council actually wanted to make Oxfordshire healthier, it would see that the answer is not to put yet more unnecessary strain on the hospitality industry at this impossibly difficult time.

Instead, the council should throw all its efforts behind supporting vaping as an alternative to smoking. More than half of Britain’s e-cigarette users – around 1.7 million people – are former smokers. Those nine out of ten Oxfordshire residents who don’t smoke won’t have to worry about any health risks from second-hand e-cigarette vapour. Even Public Health England concedes – with a great deal of reluctance – that vaping is 95 per cent less harmful than smoking.

And yet, in the 24-page Oxfordshire Tobacco Control Strategy, there is not a single mention of vaping, the most effective instrument for tobacco control we have. That begs the question: what do the public health authorities actually want, if it is not to make people healthier? When they flagrantly eschew proven harm reduction tools in favour of gratuitous centralised policy interventions, it becomes impossible to sympathise with their motives.

This problem stretches much further than Oxfordshire. In fact, the county is only a few years ahead of national public health outcomes. Its strategy mimics that of Public Health England, which is working towards Matt Hancock’s target of making England smoke-free by 2030.

The attack on effective harm reduction methods and the swing towards a new age of nanny statism comes from the very top. Last week, the World Health Organisation honoured the health minister of India for his work on “tobacco control” which notably includes banning vaping. A new APPG, chaired by Mark Pawsey, the Conservative MP, seeks to bring to a halt the WHO’s pernicious influence in areas like this. That task becomes more difficult with each passing day.

Jason Reed: Obesity rates are at a critical point. But campaigners’ plans to tackle the issue are deeply flawed.

28 May

Jason Reed is the founder of Young Voices UK and a policy fellow with the Consumer Choice Center.

More than one in five British children are obese by the time they leave primary school at the age of 11. That puts the childhood obesity rate at the highest it has ever been. It creeps higher still with each year that passes.

Having been asleep at the wheel on this issue for years, the public health lobby is now stepping up its game. A recent experiment, featured in a BBC One documentary, investigated the effects of “ultra-processed foods” on children’s brains. Dr Chris van Tulleken, who conducted the experiment and fronted the documentary, suggests unhealthy food does much more than make us fatter. He presents it as “addictive”, comparing it to drugs.

His thesis seems to be that private companies are maliciously getting children hooked on their unhealthy products and, therefore, that the state ought to legislate against them in order to safeguard children’s health.

We saw the same phenomenon with the hysteria over video game addiction. We were told for years that helpless, rosy-cheeked children were becoming hopelessly addicted to games consoles. That had the effect of making a relatively new technology seem sinister and threatening. All sorts of interventionist measures were proposed in the name of saving our children from this immediate threat which, in any context other than a health emergency, would seem like a gross overreaction.

Time and again, children’s health is weaponised as a justification for pushing through all sorts of unnecessary new punitive taxes and regulations which make life more difficult for consumers and fortify the nanny state.

Take, for instance, the plan to ban advertising for “junk food” on television before 9pm and online at all times. Just before the policy was confirmed as a part of the government’s anti-fat drive, shortly after a public consultation had closed, an anonymous government source welcomed the release of a helpfully timed “exposé” calling attention to the amount of junk food ads seen by children every day.

The paper was published by a group called Bite Back 2030 which boasts the support of celebrity chefs Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. It was shameless in its use of children’s voices to make its case seem more compelling. The introduction to the report reads: “I’m a 16-year-old boy from Leicester. I feel like I’m being bombarded with junk food ads on my phone and on my computer. And I’m pretty sure this is getting worse.”

Note the use of “bombarded”, an unduly aggressive term designed to vilify the entire advertising industry. The paper is littered with similar rhetoric which, in the absence of a persuasive material case for new restrictions, takes a sentimental route instead, daring us to risk leaving our children exposed.

The problem is the disconnect between the rhetoric and the policy. If Oliver et al were truly invested in improving children’s diets, they wouldn’t be backing an ad ban policy which the Government’s own research has shown would remove just 1.7 calories from children’s diets per day – around half a Smartie.

While the health benefits would be miniscule, the policy’s effect on the advertising industry would be appalling. Research from the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute has shed light on the unintended consequences of an ill-considered blanket ban. For instance, it seems items which could never reasonably be described as “junk food” – honey, tinned fruit, mustard and yoghurt, to name but a few – will become collateral damage. Countless businesses will be affected.

Perhaps there is a case to be made that we should fight fire with fire. Those pushing these policies are willing to disregard the evidence and use stories of human suffering – albeit highly questionable ones – to advance their cause. In which case, consider the case of my mother, a single, underprivileged immigrant who runs a small baking business out of her kitchen. Under this new law, posting photos of her cakes to her Instagram account – the sole tool she uses to advertise her services – would become illegal.

An anonymous government source – the same one who warmly welcomed Oliver’s vital research into McDonald’s Facebook presence – explained that we needn’t worry because the policy is targeted at ‘the food giants’, as opposed to ‘small companies advertising home-made cakes online’.

It remains unclear how a ban on a certain type of advertising can be enforced against some businesses and not others. Last year, there was genuine legal ambiguity over whether it was a crime to sit on a park bench and people were arrested for the offence of “socialising outdoors”. A one-line briefing to a newspaper in which a faceless government representative promises that your livelihood will be somehow exempt from its new law is hardly reassuring.

The inescapable fact is that our public health authorities have been asleep at the wheel for years on this issue. Obesity rates have climbed and climbed. Now that the situation is approaching a critical point, they are pushing through tired, 20th century ideas to deal with 21st century problems.

The abolition of Public Health England was a step in the right direction. We can only hope its successor, a new agency led by Jenny Harries, will bring a fresh, considered view to this area.

Jason Reed: Dowden’s latest task? Regulating the internet. Here’s what Australia can teach us about that challenge.

10 Mar

Jason Reed is the UK liaison at Young Voices, a policy fellow with the Consumer Choice Center and a communications advisor for the British Conservation Alliance.

Culture secretary Oliver Dowden finds himself burdened with an almighty task: regulating the internet. His new ‘Digital Markets Unit’, set to form part of the existing Competitions and Markets Authority, will be the quango in charge of regulating the social media giants. Dowden, like the rest of us, is now trying to discern what can be learned by rummaging through the rubble left behind by the regulatory punch-up between Facebook and the Australian government over a new law forcing online platforms to pay news companies in order to host links to their content.

Google acquiesced immediately, agreeing to government-mandated negotiations with news producers. But Facebook looked ready to put up a fight, following through on its threat to axe all news content from its Australian services. It wasn’t long, though, before Mark Zuckerberg backed down, unblocked the Facebook pages of Australian newspapers and, through gritted teeth, agreed to set up a direct debit to Rupert Murdoch.

The drama down under has been met with a mixed response around the world, but it is broadly consistent with the trend of governments shifting towards more and more harmful and intrusive interference in the technology sector, directly undermining consumers’ interests and lining Murdoch’s pockets. The EU, for one, is keen to get stuck in, disregarding the status quo and unveiling its ambitious plan to keep tabs on the tech giants.

In the US, the situation is rather different. Some conspiracy theorists – the type who continue to believe that Donald Trump is the rightful president of the United States – like to allege that the infamous Section 230, the item of US legislation which effectively regulates social media there, was crafted in cahoots with big tech lobbyists as a favour to bigwigs at Facebook, Google, Twitter, and so on. In reality, Section 230 was passed as part of the Communications Decency Act in 1996, long before any of those companies existed.

Wildly overhyped by many as a grand DC-Silicon Valley conspiracy to shut down the right’s online presence, Section 230 is actually very short and very simple. It is, in fact, just 26 words long: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

Not only is this a good starting point from which to go about regulating the internet – it is the only workable starting point. If the opposite were true – if platforms were treated as publishers and held liable for the content posted by their users – competition would suffer immensely. Incumbent giants like Facebook would have no problem employing a small army of content moderators to insulate themselves, solidifying their position at the top of the food chain. Meanwhile, smaller companies – the Zuckerbergs of tomorrow – would be unable to keep up, resulting in a grinding halt to innovation and competition.

Another unintended consequence – a clear theme when it comes to undue government meddling in complex matters – would be that vibrant online spaces would quickly become unusable as companies scramble to moderate platforms to within an inch of their lives in order to inoculate themselves against legal peril.

Even with the protections currently in place, it is plain how awful platforms are at moderating content. There are thousands of examples of well-intentioned moderation gone wrong. In January, the Entrepreneurs Network’s Sam Dumitriu found himself plonked in Twitter jail for a tweet containing the words “vaccine” and “microchip” in an attempt to call out a NIMBY’s faulty logic. Abandoning the fundamental Section 230 provision would only make this problem much, much worse by forcing platforms to moderate much more aggressively than they already do.

Centralisation of policy in this area fails consistently whether it comes from governments or the private sector because it is necessarily arbitrary and prone to human error. When Facebook tried to block Australian news outlets, it also accidentally barred the UK-based output of Sky News and the Telegraph, both of which have Australian namesakes. State-sanctioned centralisation of policy, though, is all the more dangerous, especially now that governments seem content to tear up the rulebook and run riot over the norms of the industry almost at random, resulting in interventions which are both ineffectual and harmful.

The Australian intervention in the market is so arbitrary that it could easily have been the other way around: forcing News Corp to pay Facebook for the privilege of having its content shared freely by people all over the world. Perhaps the policy would even make more sense that way round. If someone was offering news outlets a promotional package with a reach comparable to Facebook’s usership, the value of that package on the ad market would be enormous.

Making people pay to have their links shared makes no sense at all. Never in the history of the internet has anybody had to pay to share a link. In fact, the way the internet works is precisely the opposite: individuals and companies regularly fork out large sums of money in order to put their links on more people’s screens.

If you’d said to a newspaper editor twenty years ago that they would soon have free access to virtual networks where worldwide promotion of their content would be powered by organic sharing, they would have leapt for joy. A regulator coming along and decreeing that the provider of that free service now owes money to the newspaper editor is patently ludicrous.

That is not to say, however, that there is no role for a regulator to play. But whether or not the Digital Markets Unit will manage to avoid the minefield of over-regulation remains to be seen. As things stand, there is a very real danger that we might slip down that road. Matt Hancock enthusiastically endorsed the Australian government’s approach, and Oliver Dowden has reportedly been chatting with his counterparts down under about this topic.

The humdrum of discourse over this policy area was already growing, but the Australia-Facebook debacle has ignited it. The stars have aligned such that 2021 is the long-awaited point when the world’s governments finally attempt to reckon with the tech behemoths. From the US to Brussels, from Australia to the Baltics, the amount of attention being paid to this issue is booming.

As UK government policy begins to take shape, expect to see fronts forming between different factions within the Conservative Party on this issue. When it comes to material consequences in Britain, it is not yet clear what all this will mean. The Digital Markets Unit could yet be a hero or a villain.

Jason Reed: Taiwan, Britain and the UN. It’s time to rethink the One-China Policy.

25 Sep

Jason Reed is External Communications Officer at the British Conservation Alliance.

The World Health Organisation (WHO), which is an arm of the UN, has come under a great deal of scrutiny this year as a result of its disastrous leadership throughout the pandemic, the most troubling aspect of which is its close links with China.

When the Coronavirus first emerged, transparency of information in government was suddenly more pivotal than ever before. But little to no information sharing occurred between countries at that crucial time, thanks to the combination of the WHO being at Beijing’s behest and the Chinese Communist Party’s aversion to openness of any kind. The cost of that failure was tens of thousands of lives.

The CCP’s tentacles extend far beyond the WHO, of course. The Chinese government has spent the last several decades worming its way into every corner of the UN. Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of that is the UN’s persistent refusal to recognise Taiwan as anything other than Chinese territory.

Imperialism is alive and well in the twenty-first century. China, a modern colonial power, still claims sovereignty over Taiwan, despite the fact that Taiwan has been an independent country for over 70 years, and its government was democratically elected by its population of 24 million.

Taiwan’s exclusion from the UN has nothing to do with Taiwan itself. It’s not as if the UN considered Taiwan’s request to join and rejected it on merit. Even North Korea is a member, after all. The UN simply refuses to acknowledge Taiwan’s existence. It is so beholden to the will of the Chinese government that it does not dare contradict anything that comes out of Beijing. What is the point of an international peace project if it reliably does the bidding of a communist dictatorship?

If there was ever a time to put our foot down and begin to roll back China’s power on the world stage, it is now. “De-Sinoficiation” will define international relations in the coming decades. The Coronavirus coverup, along with flagrant assaults on democracy in Hong Kong and the appalling genocide of the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, mean that the world has no choice but to begin to distance itself from the CCP.

This will be an almighty task. For at least forty years, our politics and our economies have gradually become more and more intimately connected with those of China. Disentangling ourselves from that relationship will be a lengthy and arduous process. Finally deciding to exclude Huawei from our 5G network was the first step on a very long road.

But it is a journey we must make. De-Sinoficiation is a necessary task. The entire western world has effectively turned a blind eye to China’s wrongdoing for far too long. The watershed moment has now passed – there is no going back. In order to preserve any semblance of a liberal, globalised world order, China must be knocked off its omnipotent pedestal and held accountable for its actions.

Taiwan’s right to exist as an independent nation seems a good place to start. The right and wrong of the issue is clear-cut and it has always been a touchy area for the CCP, whose greatest fear is its sweeping authority being undermined.

In the Economist’s democracy index, Taiwan ranks third in Asia and 31st in the world (higher than Italy and Belgium). Meanwhile, China languishes among the fifteen least democratic countries, making it more authoritarian than Cuba and Iran. While Taiwan was legalising same-sex marriage, making it the first country in Asia to do so, China was writing ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ into its constitution.

Taiwan stands ready and able to become a fully-fledged member of the international community. There ought to be no question about its validity as an independent country. You might even argue that the island nation, which calls itself the Republic of China, has a much stronger claim to be the Chinese government than Beijing.

On top of everything else, Taiwan is a trailblazing Covid success story. Its total death count from the pandemic to date is seven. The Taiwanese government is also going above and beyond any reasonable expectations in order to build friendships with other democracies around the world, including the UK.

Despite the western world unfairly shunning it in favour of China’s economic might, Taiwan continues to behave courteously towards its would-be allies. For instance, the Taiwanese government donated over a million face masks to the NHS at the height of the British coronavirus outbreak.

Since then, Taiwan has – politely – asked to join the UN and be recognised as an independent nation, calmly pointing out the enormous body of evidence and precedents in its favour. Those calls have gone unheard. Some bridge-building is going on – such as through UK Export Finance investing in a Taiwanese renewable energy project – but it will never go far enough while China is still in the picture.

The British left is beginning to stake its flag in Beijing apologia. Now is the time for Conservatives to demonstrate what post-Brexit Global Britain could look like by standing up for freedom on the world stage. The first step ought to be reconsidering the long-outdated One-China Policy, which would surely cause a ripple of similar actions across the west and – potentially – force the UN to reconsider its close relationship with China.

The Government has an opportunity to lead the world on de-Sinofication and create a valuable new ally for Britain in the process. Let’s not waste any more time.

Jason Reed: History will judge us for our response to the Uyghur genocide

23 Aug

Jason Reed is Deputy Editor of 1828 and digital director at the British Conservation Alliance.

Hollow declarations of socio-political high-mindedness are all the rage in political discourse these days, especially on the Left. People love to talk about how righteous they are and how evil everyone else is. One of the virtue signallers’ favourite talking points as of late is that, had they been alive two hundred years ago, they would have publicly opposed slavery.

Slavery was the accepted norm of the time. But many on the Left love to talk about how they would have gone against the grain, selflessly sacrificing any public standing in order to become revolutionaries and voice their disgust at the unspeakable horror of slavery, even if nothing came of them doing the right thing. They insist that they would always stand up for the basic human rights to life, dignity and freedom, no matter the difficulty of the circumstances.

While we can’t put that claim to the test directly, we can achieve a close approximation by observing how those same people on the Left react to the genocide that is taking place in front of us today. Unsurprisingly, it’s not looking good.

The Chinese Communist Party is shamelessly massacring Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. The proof that has emerged of the horrors taking place within the Chinese borders is overwhelming. No matter how much you might want to twist the truth, it is now impossible to repudiate what is happening in China. A genocide is taking place. Not only can it no longer be denied – it can no longer be ignored.

This ongoing ethnic cleansing represents all the very worst of humanity. Blinded by religious prejudice and racial hatred, energised by an uncompromising desire for ethnic purity, and driven by an impulsive need for total control over its people, the Chinese government is committing the single most heinous act of which mankind is capable.

Every day, new irrefutable evidence surfaces. Each batch of new information is more heart-wrenching than the last. It is now over a month since the Andrew Marr Show broadcast appalling drone footage of Uyghur Muslims being blindfolded, lined up and packed onto a train to be carted off to remote government facilities. The Chinese Government, via its ambassador in London, responded by denying flat-out on live television that which has already been proven beyond any doubt.

The Russian government also denies acts of aggression even when the world knows it is guilty, such as after the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury. But it does so with a knowing smirk. Vladimir Putin likes to see how far he can push Western governments before they lose patience. He knows full well that we don’t believe a word of what he says, and he doesn’t care. One gets the impression that he even finds it funny.

But China is different. When Liu Xiaoming, Beijing’s UK ambassador, was asked by Marr to explain the footage, he seemed almost offended. How dare we interfere in China’s domestic affairs? The CCP embodies a coldness. It lacks humanity. It believes that it is perfectly within its rights to do what it is doing, and it is taken aback that we Westerners should dare to object to it.

The Chinese response to the drone footage was not a one-off. There is a clear pattern forming in the way the CCP intends to deal with these kinds of accusations. Earlier this month, a new piece of evidence emerged. A Uyghur fashion model by the name of Merdan Ghappar filmed himself handcuffed to a bed and described in detail the 18 days he had spent chained up and hooded with dozens of others in one of the government’s “centres”.

Once again, in their official response to the surfacing of damning new evidence, the Chinese authorities habitually tell total mistruths. They have no substantive counter-argument to offer, so they lie. They insist, for example, that highly secure “re-education camps” are entirely voluntary schools for anti-extremism training.

Rather than calling this behaviour out for what it is, rather than pointing to the reams of evidence incriminating the Chinese government, the left somehow chooses to equivocate. Perhaps they are motivated by the word “communist” in the CCP’s name. Or maybe they are merely keen to maintain their record of siding with all the worst regimes in the world. Either way, leftists doge the issue and engage in what effectively amounts to CCP apologism.

As a result, China thinks it can get away with anything. The Chinese government feels no shame for what it is doing. It denies completely that anything out of the ordinary is happening in Xinjiang, let alone that people are being systematically incarcerated, torn from their loved ones, sterilised and murdered because of their race and religion. It does not show a flicker of remorse as it issues its blanket denials of any wrongdoing.

That’s because the Chinese government believes the West is weak. They stare us in the face and deny what is plain to see. They look us in the eye and tell us that the sky is green, and expect us to back down. They poke and prod us relentlessly, expecting no retaliation. They think they can get away with doing whatever they want and never be held accountable or face the consequences of their actions. Why do they think that? Because of useful idiots on the Left in the West who will defend them to the death.

So, perhaps, if those on the British Hard Left truly do support human rights above all else no matter how inconvenient it might be to say so, and they really would have openly opposed slavery 200 years ago, they should prove it now by standing up for the group which is on the receiving end of the most awful violence and oppression imaginable.

If we have any conscience at all, as a nation and as a society, we simply cannot allow what is happening in China to continue. We are at a crossroads in our global political journey. As the UK leaves the European Union, the world watches on to see which direction Britain will choose. On the one hand, we could give in to the leftist, isolationist Little England vision of a reclusive UK which has no major role to play on the world stage.

Alternatively, we could make that post-Brexit Global Britain we have heard so much about into a reality. Surely, opposing genocide is one issue on which we should be able to achieve a universal consensus. A crime against humanity is taking place and history will judge us for how we respond to it. Uyghur Muslims desperately need our help. Let’s not waver or quibble. Let’s answer their call.