How a complete ban on smoking could open up a whole can of worms - Jayne Dowle

I never thought I’d find myself agreeing with Liz Truss, widely regarded as the most disastrous Prime Minister in British history, on anything, but here I am in alignment with her determination to take Rishi Sunak to task over his proposed total ban on smoking.

Ever the libertarian – just recall what a freewheeling hand she took to the stock market – Ms Truss is sending up smoke signals that, in the name of personal freedom, she will oppose his idea, to stop anyone aged 14 or younger from ever legally buying cigarettes.

Mr Sunak is calling it “the biggest public health intervention in a decade”, and he does have a point. The younger a person starts to light up, the more likely they are to end up suffering from a serious and potentially life-threatening condition, including numerous forms of cancer, stroke, heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

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He's following the lead of former New Zealand premier Jacinda Ardern, who before she left office in January this year, barred anyone born on or after January 1, 2009 from buying gaspers – or face heavy fines.

'I am in alignment with Liz Truss' determination to take Rishi Sunak to task over his proposed total ban on smoking'. PIC: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire'I am in alignment with Liz Truss' determination to take Rishi Sunak to task over his proposed total ban on smoking'. PIC: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
'I am in alignment with Liz Truss' determination to take Rishi Sunak to task over his proposed total ban on smoking'. PIC: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

With the aim of making the entire country ‘smoke-free’ by 2025, the Wellington government is reported to be removing all the nicotine from cigarettes and slashing the number of shops which can sell them from 6,000 to 600 nationwide.

All of the above worries me. I say this as an ex-smoker, but I’m certainly not a rabid one. I first gave up more than 20 years ago, when I was planning to start a family, but I’ve lapsed and lapsed and I certainly know how addictive it can be.

I’ve always told my children never to start, because my empty purse and my wheezy chest and my wrinkling skin and my yellowing teeth and my red watery eyes every morning would remind me what a foolish activity it was. A quick hit and looking ‘cool’ was never worth the price to pay.

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As far as I know, they never have. However, as an independent, free-thinking individual in what is still a democratic country, I respect the notion of free will.

I fear that to police this potential age ban, the government would need to pave the way for even more surveillance of our society. Compulsory National Identity cards, for example.

As the parent of a-just-18-year-old, I am well-versed in the nuances of ‘ID’. But if this ban came in, would today’s youngsters be carrying ID cards for the rest of their lives? Would future technology mean their bio-metric footprints were recorded every time they went into a shop? What would happen with visitors from overseas, or those who for one reason or another, can’t prove their identity? These things demand deep thought, not a knee-jerk conference speech.

And, looking again at the New Zealand model, has Mr Sunak considered what curtailing sales would do for the livelihoods of thousands of small, independent retailers? Whatever you think about cigarettes per se, you can’t deny that the ability to sell them keeps many of these corner shops and mini-markets in business. Teetotaller Mr Sunak might need a gentle reminder of what the smoking ban in pubs, introduced in 2007, has done for the licensed trade in the UK.

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He might also accept that if people want to do anything illegal, they will find a way. I have it on good authority that due to the prohibitive price of cigarettes in shops now, many smokers buy their fags online for about a fiver for a packet of 20. Coming down hard and banning things simply sends them further underground, encouraging criminality.

Many health campaigners are questioning why the Prime Minister is considering this cigarette policy now. Vaping is another matter, and interestingly, his speech didn’t mention anything about curtailing sales of disposable plastic tubes filled with nasty chemicals to under-18s, but cigarette smoking amongst teens has been stubbing itself for years without hardline government intervention.

In 2021, according to the NHS, the proportion of school pupils in England who regularly smoked had dropped to just 1 per cent. The decline is coming from them, peer pressure and education, not stringent legislation. It was double that – 2 per cent – in 2018. Compare this to 1996, when 30 per cent of 15-year-olds admitted that they regularly smoked.

In the face of this, it seems unnecessarily draconian for a Prime Minister facing a General Election in the next 12 months or so to come down so heavily on an issue which would affect liberty and personal choice for young voters. The savvier ones will no doubt argue that it’s less about tobacco, more about taking control.