Starting smoking is something that is mostly done by children. Two thirds of smokers started before they were 18. Almost nobody starts to smoke after the age of 25.
Starting to smoke has a huge impact on a child’s life outcomes. Generally young people don’t realise how addictive it is and often assume they will smoke for a while, then stop before it becomes a problem. Between a half and two thirds of those who don’t manage to stop smoking will be killed by it, often after years of ill health.
A young couple getting married after ten years of smoking will have spent enough on tobacco to pay the deposit on a house*. That’s a striking either/or scenario.
On average 36 children under 16 take up smoking every day in Scotland. The number is declining, but that’s still far too many lives. So how can we deliver on the Scottish Government commitment for the next generation to grow up tobacco-free ??
Children take up smoking when it is both attractive to them and available to them. We’ve come a long way since the days when our society was saturated with tobacco advertising and popular culture pushed glamourous smoking imagery. Tobacco advertising and displays have been banned and the last branded packs (in the UK, at least) are working their way through the supply chain and into the history books. The general decline in smoking, along with smoke-free enclosed public spaces, have undermined smoking’s place in popular culture, which has reduced the role of smoking as a rite of passage to adulthood and the normalisation and peer pressure that everyone is doing it.
On children’s access to tobacco, the legal age of sale was raised from 16 to 18 in 2007. In addition there will soon be a legal obligation to request ID before selling tobacco to anyone appearing to be under 25. In theory this should keep tobacco out of the hands of children, but of course it only works if effectively enforced.
Currently nearly a third of 15 year old smokers say that they buy tobacco from shops. This cannot be unrelated to the fact that a significant proportion of retailers still fail test purchasing and are found to sell to young people.
Despite a significant level of under-age purchasing, and a lot of retailers being caught in the act, only a handful of retailers have been excluded from the retailers register over the last few years. While providing useful intelligence and contacts for those selling tobacco, it seems the register has limited power to reduce under-age sales.
Another avenue for young people to access tobacco is proxy purchase – getting an adult to buy it for them. This is illegal, but it is difficult to enforce an activity that may take place informally and well away from the shop itself. Half of 15 year old smokers indicate that they get someone else to buy tobacco for them, and we applaud efforts by NHS Lothian and others to change attitudes around this practice.
Finally there is the illicit market, which bypasses regulations and restrictions and around a third of 15 year old smokers indicate that some of the tobacco they obtain is from this route. Thankfully the illicit market is at historically low levels, but still represents a significant gap in protecting children from tobacco.
Big Tobacco company Philip Morris has funded retired policeman Will O’Reilly to travel the country looking for illicit tobacco for sale. With even the reduced illicit market at 10% of cigarette sticks and 35% of hand-rolling tobacco it is not surprising that a retired officer should be able to get hold of some.
We are not convinced by O’Reilly’s warnings of a “booming” illicit market (it’s hugely reduced, not booming). But if a retired cop can find illicit tobacco simply by going out to pubs and car boots sales asking for it – then shouldn’t we ensure the currently employed enforcement officers have the resources to do this?
Reducing the attraction of tobacco to young people, and their ability to access it, is a child protection approach with the ability to radically alter the life prospects of thousands of young people in Scotland every year. Taking a robust approach to illicit doesn’t cost much, and as a means of tackling tax avoidance it may even be a revenue raiser. Taking a hard line on retailers selling tobacco to kids isn’t radical – in 2016 who doesn’t know that they’re supposed to check – and it supports responsible retailers put at an unfair disadvantage by such dishonest practice.
Smoking is presented as an adult pastime – if we get these actions right then hopefully by 2034 we can ensure that it is.
* On simple calculation that average smoker spends £1500 a year on tobacco, so two smokers over ten years spend £30,000