Last week, the British Medical Association voted to demand a ban on the sale of cigarettes to anyone born in this century for the rest of their lives. Yes, parents, you read that right: The idea is that if your child is under 14 (incidentally the age I happened to be when I tried my first cigarette), he or she would never be allowed to legally buy a pack of smokes. Not ever. Not even in 2045 when they are middle-aged, going through a stressful divorce and a bit tipsy at the office Christmas party. Cigarettes will be off limits.
At that time their 46-year-old co-worker, on the other hand, will be legally able to smoke his head off. This, of course, highlights the obvious problem with the recommended ban – specifically that it affords one right to certain adults but not to others based on nothing except date of birth.
It might be completely impractical and unenforceable, but as a mother, I must say I’m all for it. Who wants their kid to smoke? And why shouldn’t the government introduce legislation – even if it’s a bit flawed and silly – in the hope of achieving the aim of a smoke-free future? Even if it prevented just a handful of kids from never starting in the first place, wouldn’t that be worth the trouble?
The idea, according to the BMA, is to “progressively denormalize” smoking, in the way we have successfully done so in offices and public spaces. Remember when we all thought they’d never be able to enforce the smoking ban in bars? Turns out that, after the first couple of months, “they” didn’t have to, because everyone else did. Today most smokers police themselves. I have friends who refuse to light up at a dinner table even if there’s a blizzard outside and you beg them to – that’s how disgusted they are by their own habit.
But back to the young. They still do have a choice, and they are choosing, in fairly alarming numbers, to smoke (even though it’s illegal for them to do so under the age of 18 in Canada). According to Pippa Beck, policy analyst for the Ottawa branch of the Non-Smokers’ Right Association, the vast majority of people who start smoking still do so while they are young. And smoking is marginally on the rise among people aged 18 to 24. As in Britain, about 20 per cent of Canadian adults smoke (give or take a few percentage points depending on the province).
Beck told me that while she is “very excited” about the possible British ban, there is as yet no plan to push for the same in Canada. The main weapon against kids smoking is taxation, making cigarettes so expensive here that it might discourage “young people who are price sensitive.” Besides, she said, the chances of getting a ban like the BMA’s proposal through the current Canadian Parliament is slim to none. “The Feds have really retreated from tobacco and made it provincial issue in recent years,” Beck said. “This government has done nothing progressive or innovative when it comes to curbing smoking.”
The British measure (which is not a law, just a recommendation to the government) is intended to create the U.K.’s first “smoke-free generation.” In Australia, a country at the vanguard of anti-smoking legislation, an identical ban is making its way through parliament. And Singapore is considering the same.
In the U.K., there is plenty of resistance to the initiative. Simon Clark, director of Forest, a smoker’s-rights group funded by the tobacco industry, said the doctors’ plan is “utterly ludicrous” and really just the BMA’s way of proposing an outright, society-wide ban on smoking without coming out and saying it. “They’re trying very hard not to use the word ‘prohibition’ because they know it didn’t work the last time round,” he said. “After the age of 18, it’s up to people whether they want to smoke or eat fatty food or whatever. As long as tobacco is a legal substance, people should be able to behave as they see fit.”
I’m all for civil liberties, but as a former smoker who was brought up by smokers, it’s impossible not to recognize the pattern here. Kids don’t start smoking in a moral vacuum. They smoke because they watch the adults around them doing it, or their peers. And if they grow up thinking it’s normal behaviour, it only makes sense that they will try it.
Making smoking illegal for those born in the new millennium sends a clear message: That it’s not normal or responsible to smoke, even if your parents or your older brother do it. As all parents instinctively know, sometimes a flawed rule is better than no rule at all.