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Streets Of London: Smokin' Dude...It Ain't Cool

From the Streets Of London With Malcolm Aitken

Smokin' Dude...It Ain't Cool

The best way to give up smoking is to never start in the first place…those of us who've done battle with the evilest weed know this. However, on the Channel Island of Guernsey the number of teenagers smoking or intending to was halved over five years according to an Exeter University study released recently, following up the effects of a government crackdown on tobacco products. The States of Guernsey, the government of the British Crown dependency with a population of about 64 000, banned cigarette advertising, raised taxes on fags and increased the legal purchasing age from 16 to 18. (Fag adverts on hoardings and in newspapers and magazines were banned in the UK earlier this month). A special unit was also established on Guernsey to encourage children to play sport and avoid smoking. Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) UK research manager Amanda Sandford says she want to see Guernsey's success mirrored in the UK. Scoop spoke with earlier this week.

Scoop: You were quoted saying you hoped that the successes in Guernsey could be mirrored in the UK once the tobacco advertising ban is fully implemented. As I'm sure you are aware, tobacco companies have been saying for years that their advertising is not intended to encourage people to start smoking, but if they already smoke anyway, they want people to pick their brand. (Which incidentally may be lower tar for example, i.e. less harmful). What's your response to this justification for cigarette advertising?

Of course advertising does help to persuade existing smokers to change brands but this is only part of the picture. Evidence abounds to show that young people are persuaded to start smoking by tobacco advertising and that once they take up smoking, advertising reinforces their positive views of smoking.

The industy line that advertising should be permitted because it provides consumers with information about tar is risible. You will no doubt have seen the typical UK cigarette ad before the ban came into effect. The only 'information' provided was the health warning and a tar/nicotine measurement which is fairly meaningless. At least Philip Morris does now acknowledge that a smoker's intake of tar and nicotine depends on how a person smokes the cigarette, but this is too little, too late.

Scoop: Does ASH support even higher taxation on cigarettes (even though the Exchequer already hits cigarette smokers so hard)?

We believe cigarette prices rise in line with incomes: they don't become more affordable. We are aware of the regressive nature of taxation on the poor and therefore argue that the government should use some of the revenue from tobacco tax to fund stop smoking services. We suggest just 2p in the pound, which would amount to around £150m ($440m) per year. This completes the 'smoking circle' and helps justify the continuing rise in tobacco tax.

Scoop: What comparative statistics or research can you provide me with or point me in the direction of regarding the correlation between higher taxes and less smoking?

There have been a number of studies on this. One of the most authoratitive Is the report by the World Bank - "Curbing The Epidemic" which has reviewed the evidence and concludes that raising the price of a pack of cigarettes by 10 percent leads to a fall in consumption of around 4 percent in developed countries and by 8 percent in low or middle income countries.

Scoop: Do higher taxes discourage people from smoking in the first place, or more encourage them to give up?

Both. The World Bank report covers this

Scoop: Does raising the age at which people can buy cigarettes really contribute to fewer smokers, or do people just take it up later instead?

ASH does not support raising the age limit. We feel that this is more likely to send the message that smoking is for adults and therefore make it even more appealing to young people. (this is why the tobacco industry supports it because they know it doesn't work as a means of reducing youth smoking.) Our view is that it is more important to focus on enforcing the existing law, though even that is difficult to do without substantial resources. I doubt whether the down-turn in smoking among youth in Guernsey is due to this policy alone.

Scoop: Apart from Guernsey what research data is there available that suggests raising the age at which people can buy cigarettes contributes to fewer younger smokers…again please point me in the direction of or provide me with any relevant information. What I'm getting at here is that people just get their older brothers and older mates and even parents to buy their cigarettes for them…

There is very little evidence that raising the age does work - hence our standpoint on this. As you correctly surmise, if teenagers want to smoke, they will ask older siblings, friends or relatives to get the cigarettes for them. There are reports from the US where they have raised the age and/ or introduced ID cards and there are all sorts of scams to get round these restrictions.

**** ENDS ****

Malcolm Aitken is a freelance journalist based in London. He can be contacted at mailto:MTFAitken@aol.com

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