The first step in the criminalisation of cigarettes

Update: Doctors voted overwhelmingly to support the motion

The anti-smoking lobby's strategy has been clear for some time now: de-normalisation followed by criminalisation.

The first step was to chip away at the areas where smoking was acceptable until it was considered a social stigma. The ban on smoking in public places was obviously the biggest victory. The push for plain packs opened up another front. The pressure put on TV networks to remove it from our screens was another.

This is where electronic cigarettes caused such confusion. On the one hand, they were possibly the most effective tool for helping people quit smoking. On the other, they threatened to make it socially acceptable again. After much internal debate, the anti-smoking lobby has mostly come out against them. Denormalisation trumps harm reduction.

Now, we finally have sight of the end game. Today, the British Medical Association (BMA) will vote on whether to push for a permanent ban on the sale of cigarettes to anyone born after the year 2000.

If the vote passes, they'll lobby the government to introduce it as legislation. Probably – although not certainly – the Tories or Lib Dems wouldn't do it. I think Labour would. The BMA have a good track record of getting their policies on smoking on to the statute book.Their motions on smoking in public places and smoking in the car with children both found their way into government legislation.

This is the first step to full criminalisation. Wisely, the BMA is pursuing even their final objective in a gradual way, starting wth those people who would anyway not be allowed to smoke now. But make no mistake: this is criminalisation. This is saying to an adult, who is not near a child or anyone else: you cannot choose to smoke.

It makes cigarettes partially illegal, depending on age.

While the direction of travel is clear, the comments from the anti-smoking lobby are as misleading and cynical as ever.

Here's George Butterworth, Cancer Research UK's tobacco policy manager:

"There are more than 10 million smokers in the UK, and it's just not practical to ban smoking. But we do want to encourage and support smokers to quit, and to do all we can to stop children from starting in the first place."

See? They're not banning anything. They are just 'encouraging and supporting' people.

Note also the use of the word 'children', despite the fact this specifically has nothing to do with children.

Tim Crocker-Buque, the specialist registrar in public health medicine who proposed the motion, is up to the same trick. He said:

"Cigarette smoking is specifically a choice made by children that results in addiction in adulthood, that is extremely difficult to give up. Eighty per cent of people who smoke start as teenagers. It's very rare for people to make an informed decision in adulthood. The idea of this proposal is to prevent those children who are not smoking from taking up smoking."

But of course this policy has nothing to do with stopping smoking in childhood. We already have a law for that. The legal smoking age was raised from 16 to 18 in 2007. This is not even about raising the minimum age to 21. This is about banning adults from smoking.

The anti-smoking lobby conducts itself with a tremendous amount of swagger, bolstered presumably by its impressive track record of success. But its arguments have always been cowardly. They have never been willing to take on directly the liberal argument that adults are entitled to do whatever they choose, regardless of its effect on their health.

They have always dressed up their proposals with supposed damage to other people.

The public smoking ban was defended with evidence of the danger (mostly illusory) of second-hand smoke. The ban on smoking in the car with children was dressed up in equally flimsy evidence of harm to children. And now this policy, which is targeted at adults by definition, is being defended on the basis of what it would do to help children – the one group who would find themselves outside its remit.

But at least the lobby is finally daring to state its objective: the criminalisation of smoking. From now on, the debate is not about public health. It is about the rights of the individual against the frenzied paternalism of those who would interfere in other people's lives.