Had Toblerone not hinted that Brexit was behind its recent decision to slim down their distinctive chocolate triangles – ‘in order to maintain current prices’ – how many of us would have noticed? Or rather, how many of us would have noticed if they’d saved the old mould and gradually raised the price?
Let’s face it, Toblerone is something of which one seldom partakes. It is, at best, a last-minute, sure-to-disappoint, duty-free present. One does not necessarily register how much it costs. If one needs a Toblerone, a Toblerone is bought. Who has ever looked at one and thought, ‘That’s a bit steep’?
Until last month, that is. No sooner had the Great Toblerone Reduction been announced than some bright spark pointed out that the old, larger bars would now be consigned to special-offer sections and pound shops. It was intel on which I, and many others, duly acted – and now I probably won’t need to buy another sodding Toblerone for years.
The moral? Simply that actions can cause reactions that lead to unintended consequences. And a good example of this can be found in the way western governments are dealing with minimum pricing and plain packaging for alcohol and tobacco.
Once upon a time, there was a social contract around these substances in Britain, a sensible weighing of the various factors. But over the last 20 years – funnily enough, as we became more aware of Abroad – it struck many Britons that the regulation and taxation of such products was puritanically severe.
What’s more – and more important – was that such measures were seen to have led to unfairly high prices for UK consumers. People sought out cheaper sources of tobacco, much like me with my now-vast Swiss vault of Toblerone reserves. And the British smuggling and counterfeiting industry saw massive expansion.
The extent of this was highlighted last week in an article in the Hull Daily Mail, and it’s shocking stuff: the trade is funding organised crime. But frankly, it isn’t surprising.
Hiking up prices on tobacco under the guise of improving public health targets the poorest in society, as they are the hardest hit by such increases. This in turn leaves them more at risk from counterfeit cigarettes, which are usually even more harmful. Thirty-two percent of tobacco sold in the UK is now illegal, but when a pack of cigarettes cost £3, compared to the £8 levied on the legal stuff, why should that surprise?
After all, the government’s policies have failed to address the reasons people in deprived areas smoke and drink more in the first place. And they don’t actually seem to improve the health of smokers – which then costs the exchequer even more money.
Earlier this week, Public Health England (PHE) released a report stating their belief that minimum pricing for alcohol was the only viable means of combatting its harmful effects. Another authoritarian move from people determined to force their vision of health onto others by punishing them, and increasing the price of their ‘own poison’ to no discernible effect.
But if counterfeit and smuggled tobacco is now so rife, does PHE really think drinkers won’t find a way round an alcohol price-hike? Have they never encountered the US Prohibition?
A further problem with this approach: unlike tobacco-processing, wine-making, brewing (and even, with a license, distilling) is relatively easy and perfectly legal; in my student days a friend and I created such potent jet-fuel that three pints knocked us and much of the university hockey team out for the count. And if barely house-trained fools like us could manage it, why can’t everyone – particularly our more competent criminals – do the same?
The government should beware the Toblerone Effect and leave alcohol pricing alone. Or at least prepare to smash up Hull’s speakeasies.