Expert View: There's no smoke without fire, or dubious statistics

The ability of governments to meddle in the economy is a growing worry for companies
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The Independent Online

Barely a day goes by without some implausibly precise statistic about the impact of something on the economy. Strikes, snow, the World Cup, the cricket - all are said to cost billions, or alternatively to bring in billions, depending on the vested interests of those pushing the story or the statistics.

And yet, one wonders to what extent government policy is run through such models before it is enacted - and even if it is, to what extent the statistics are ignored.

Last week's smoking ban was a case in point. We have already heard the alarm bells ringing in the licensed trade about the impact on business. Meanwhile the actuaries, ever keen to keep their gloom and doom in the public eye, have warned, perhaps inevitably, that banning smoking will make the pension black hole worse as people will live longer. One extra year of longevity apparently costs £15bn in the wacky world of pension projections.

A more sober analysis, however, would interpret the gloom emanating from the actuaries as highlighting the danger of long-term forecasts and compound growth - a small change at the beginning delivers enormous differences in output 20 years down the line.

Interesting that we have yet to see the quantification of a smoking ban on the NHS. Less cancer treatment but more long-term care, perhaps?

In an attempt to assess the business impacts of such changes, my company, Execution Limited, has recently entered into a joint venture with the polling company YouGov to commission bottom-up surveys on issues that may have implications for our institutional investment clients.

One such is smoking - less for its impact on tobacco companies than on pub groups. The precedent from Ireland is not good: the Vintners Federation of Ireland estimates that sales in Irish pubs fell by 20 to 30 per cent in the 12 months following the ban -and many in the UK are expecting the worst.

Our survey, however, suggests something different: a representative sample of 2,000 adults revealed that 40 per cent were actually more likely to visit pubs as a result of the smoking ban, and only 7 per cent less likely. More important for the pub owners, 28 per cent said they would spend more and only 11 per cent any less. This appears to be mainly to do with higher food sales.

For those claiming concern over smokers' health, there is also some comfort: 37 per cent of those smoking fewer than five cigarettes a day said they were much more likely to give up as a result of the ban (though those most at risk, heavy smokers, said it would have no impact).

So, overall, a great policy then? Depends on your views on civil liberties, I would suggest. But the idea that the policy was considered for its economic benefits as well as its appeal to the moral compass of legislators is dubious at best, while the ability of governments to meddle in the economy is a growing worry.

Investment requires long-term planning, and if this environment is subject to the whim of ministers then there is a problem for companies and the economy.

There is a real sting in the tail here. Any concern would increase exponentially if the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill currently being slipped through Parliament is actually enacted. In effect, it would allow ministers to change the law without needing to trouble Parliament - legislation by decree.

Even if you believe in the absolute honesty and decency of the current Government and are convinced that its actions take into account a wide range of social and economic interests, by definition that will not always be the case.

I prefer cock-up to conspiracy theories, but either way this is a disaster waiting to happen.

Mark Tinker is a director of Execution Stockbrokers