OPINION - Is raising the smoking age regressive or ingenious?

·4-min read
 (Natasha Pszenicki)
(Natasha Pszenicki)

The Government is considering raising the legal smoking age from 18 by one year every year until eventually no one can buy tobacco, and familiar arguments have surfaced.

They go like this. The age at which people are considered to be adults in the UK is 18 — the point at which you can legally get married or be sent to war. No one wants to be nannied at 18: and raising the smoking age looks like a verdict on the point at which we have the maturity to make our own decisions. Why can’t we trust people to weigh up the risks and benefits of their own decisions? Why can’t we trust 18-year-olds? Do we not have faith in the young?

“Why can’t the state trust us to make our own choices?” A variation on this argument has been made every time the Government has made an intervention on smoking.

Yet there is no vocal population calling for branded packaging, or to bring back smoking in bars and restaurants or for lower tax on tobacco products. No libertarian group is campaigning for a hypothetical future in which cigarette companies have the freedom to bombard us with sexy smoking adverts from noon until night and hand out free samples on street corners (why not? Don’t they trust us to make our own choices?).

No-one wants the legal age for cigarette purchase to be lowered back to 16, even though that is also an age at which we consider people able to make their own choices as adults — you can have sex and leave school.

Why not? Because on some level even these libertarian freedom fighters recognise that choice is a bit more complicated than their arguments suggest. In their hypothetical world, we would always be in full possession of our decision-making faculties — never hungry, or addicted, or emotional, or running low on willpower. Never in touch with the basic crocodilian part of our brains that must have a hamburger now even though we know we shouldn’t. Never responding to an advert in the way adverts are designed to make us respond: irrationally. But that isn’t how life works.

In fact, you could argue that state is morally obliged to protect us from overwhelming forces that attempt on a daily basis to make our decisions less rational. It’s not coddling us — it’s giving us the mental freedom to make rational choices. After all, most so-called ‘nanny state’ interventions don’t feel that restrictive on our freedoms, once we are looking at them in the rear-view mirror. Seat-belt laws for adults, for example. One of the earliest uses of the phrase ‘nanny state’ came in 1980, nine years before wearing a seatbelt became compulsory. In a speech in the House of Lords, Lord Balfour raged against the idea of seatbelt laws, along with many of his peers: “Therefore, if we are to have what I term the ‘nanny state’, why do not the medical lobby go for compulsory wearing of life jackets for people who swim, sail and row in boats?” How times have changed.

Another argument against these sorts of interventions is that they are ineffective. Yet the story of the UK’s anti-smoking measures is an extraordinarily successful one. When the smoking ban — in pubs, clubs, restaurants, work places and public transport — was voted through Parliament in 2006, 22 per cent of adults in the UK smoked. By 2020, the figure had dropped to 14 per cent. In the three months that followed the ban, there was a six per cent drop in the volume of cigarettes sold.

Banning cigarettes for older and older groups is a good idea if we want to reduce smoking, because interventions work much better on people before they buy their first cigarette. Once you are addicted, not very much works. Recent research in the Netherlands showed smokers will only give up if there are huge price increases: 50 per cent of those surveyed set ‘giving up’ at €60 (£51) a pack. As a result, the Dutch government wants to push the price of a pack of cigarettes to €47 (£40) by 2040.

As interventions go, that is fairly non-egalitarian. Better, surely, to raise the smoking age.

New Zealand plans to gradually increase it until it is effectively banned for anyone born after 2004. “Tobacco is the most harmful consumer product in history,” the country’s Cancer Society chief executive Lucy Elwood said, “and needs to be phased out”.

In the UK, tobacco use rose by 25 per cent among the under-30s during the pandemic — that’s more than 600,000 smokers in that age bracket. A bit more nannying wouldn’t go amiss.

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