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Should the Government Butt Out of Our Smoking Habits?

Anti-smoking legislation is being rolled out across the country in an attempt to reduce the prevalence of smoking amongst young adults. This prompts us to question whether certain bodies have the right to legislate against the promotion of smoking and ultimately, whether this will really influence young people.

Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) estimates that there are 10 million smokers in the UK, with the highest prevalence among 20-24 year old women, falling into the student bracket. Despite the fact that there are approximately 200,000 children and young adults who take up smoking each year, the Government have been successful in meeting their long-term aim of reducing the national proportion of smokers to their target of 21%.

In what can only be described as a bid to make cigarette purchasing more furtive and confusing for the juvenile customer (“er…what are the cheapest fags you’ve got?”), new legislation regarding cigarette and tobacco displays is being implemented in large supermarkets and shops around the country. Health secretary Andrew Lansley has made the promotion of cigarettes and tobacco illegal and employees must hide tobacco products or risk imprisonment.

Lansley’s reductive approach to the problem of smoking fails to account for the reasons why smokers fall into the habit and assumes that lower visibility will dissuade the young from starting. One other strategy that may come into place to tackle smoking is the introduction of plain packaging for cigarettes. Victoria Coren, of The Observer, wryly notes that “the idea is that hiding cigarettes in plain boxes, then hiding the boxes under the counter, will stop children wanting them. That is an excellent idea. Unless you’ve ever met any children.” Instead of the relentless tide of increasing tax on cigarettes, the Government should be doing something more proactive to help smokers break the addiction. Increasing tax benefits the Government a lot more than smokers trying to quit.

Becky, a student who has been smoking for three years, comments, “raising the prices of cigarettes will eliminate some smokers, but for the vast majority of us, we’ll just end up paying more for our still-strong addiction. If the risk of cancer hasn’t put us off, 60p won’t do the trick.” Tax burden accounts for 77% of the cost of one packet of cigarettes and in the period of 2010-2011, this taxation accrued £11.1 billion for the Treasury. The pro-smoking group, Forest, argue that cigarettes are almost a fully nationalised product.

George Osborne, in another of the Government’s attempts to curtail smoking, increased duty on cigarettes by 37p as part of Budget 2012. ASH posited that this “tax rise will also put cigarettes out of the price range of many young people, making it less likely that they will take up this lethal habit.” However, research has proved the opposite, with those from poorer backgrounds shown to be more likely than the general population to become smokers. The increasing cost of cigarettes, then, will have the greatest impact on those, likely adults, who can afford it the least.

This “sin tax” on cigarettes illustrates the Government’s lackadaisical attitude to determining the factors behind smoking. This financial dissuasion on cigarettes is ongoing, with the average price of a packet of cigarettes in the UK costing an exorbitant £7.46. This is in stark contrast to the prices of other EU countries; the average packet of cigarettes costs approximately £3 in Spain and under £2 in Poland.

In the fashion industry, it is common for smoking to be glamorised and associated with the rebellious and chic. Prada have been accused of glamorising smoking with the release of a new pair of ‘smoking’ stilettos, which feature pink patent lips with a cigarette dangling from the mouth. It is currently selling for £560 (or 75 packs of cigarettes). The bold design of the shoe appears to feed into a cultural psyche that regards smoking as sexy and cool. This was reiterated at Paris Fashion Week last year, when Kate Moss sauntered down the catwalk smoking a cigarette, flagrantly ignoring Paris’ smoking ban. However, it is not just the fashion industry that is the perpetrator of this trend; the film, TV and music industry are examples of other sectors that share culpability. Ultimately, this undermines the Government’s strenuous attempts to eradicate smoking, and hence more effective measures need to be taken.

A recent study conducted by Northumbria University found that students who smoked fared worse on memory-performance tasks in comparison to non-smokers tested. This included university students who are regular smokers and also infrequent or ‘social’ smokers. Outside Hallward, there is always the familiar troop of daily smokers congregating by the doors; but what of the social smokers who make up a large proportion of students?

One student, Clara said “I’ve been social smoking for five years now and it’s the same with a lot of my friends. We all started after GCSEs and now it just feels natural to have a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other.” The link between drinking and smoking is reinforced by nights out such as High Spirits, which include packets of cigarettes and unlimited alcohol in the price of a ticket. Coco Tang also sell cigarettes behind the bar, illustrating the compulsion for many to smoke whilst drinking.

Outdoor smoking bans are now being promoted to quash the rise of the social smoker, a phenomenon that appears to be endemic to the student populace. Clara continues, “whilst I think it is important to help smokers curb the addiction, taxing people won’t affect much change. It is unsettling though that in the past five years there has never been a period longer than six weeks when I haven’t smoked, so things like the outdoor ban could help.”

Regular tax increases on cigarettes, the 2007 smoking ban and the possible outdoor ban show that the smoker is slowly being edged out of polite society, with Lansley asserting that “we want to arrive at a place where we no longer see smoking as a normal part of life.” A study conducted with smokers in Nottingham asserted that some of the smokers “already felt persecuted by both the health professions and the Government”, a feeling that will be compounded by new legislation and the Government’s war on smoking.

It is commendable that the Government wants to curtail the amount of young people taking up smoking, but other than raising the price of cigarettes to eye-watering proportions, more should be done for those who are already addicted. The glamorisation of smoking in the media is offset by the Government’s demonization of smokers, a “group of people who voluntarily choose to consume a perfectly legal product”, says one civil liberties campaign group. The Government has been passing legislation that attempts to force the smoker out of sight; however, it should be ensured that the emphasis is on treatment, not punishment.

Settit Beyene

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