Doug Marr: Scotland should be more ambitious in its anti-smoking campaign

I had a lucky break when I was around nine or ten years old. A pal and I truanted from Sunday school, embezzled and pooled our collection money and spent the proceeds on five Woodbine and a box of matches. We had discovered a shopkeeper who operated to a low standard of proof and with a nod and a wink, accepted they were for my father.

We duly lit up, inhaled and waited for the cool sophistication of being smokers to kick in. The sensation wasn’t what we anticipated; the world started to spin and I couldn’t help but notice my pal had turned an interesting shade of green. Even now, I remember how ill I was I and Iwas never tempted to give it another go.

I realise now how lucky I was to have had aversion therapy at an early age. It preserved both health and thousands of pounds that otherwise would have gone up in smoke. Some were more persevering and weren’t so lucky. Two contemporaries were to die prematurely and distressingly, through smoking-related emphysema.

My experience underlines the importance of winning the hearts and minds of young people before experimentation becomes addiction. As part of a raft of anti-smoking measures, New Zealand has targeted young people in particular. Regular price rises aim to make smoking unaffordable. The amount of nicotine in tobacco is being reduced as is the number of outlets for tobacco products. The most ground breaking measures however, are those that annually raise the legal age for buying and using tobacco. In effect, anyone currently under the age of 14 will never in their lifetime be able to legally access cigarettes.


How would similar measures play out in this country? Opinions will be shaped by whether one is a smoker or not. There are organisations out there that virtually celebrate smoking. Forest for example, describes itself as the “Voice and Friend of the Smoker”. My contemporaries who suffered from emphysema could certainly have used a voice. By the time they passed away, they were so breathless they could scarcely speak.

To most non-smokers, the whole issue is a no-brainer; we should be working towards an outright ban. However, it’s not that simple. Far-reaching measures to eliminate tobacco use would affect a large number of people. Health Scotland estimates around 20% of Scots over the age of 16 are smokers. The usual suspects would have a field day, taking to the soap boxes if not the barricades, to accuse the Scottish Government and the First Minister in particular, of more control freakery.

The 100 Westminster Tories, daft enough to vote against moderate anti-Covid measures, would mount a spirited defence of the inalienable freedom to kill ourselves through smoking. Churchill’s cigars would be invoked. Budgetary considerations would also be a factor. In 2020/21, smokers coughed up a staggering £9.6 billion in revenue for the UK government. True, they get some of that back should they be one of the 30,000 Scots admitted to hospital with tobacco related illnesses.

Outright prohibition would raise major problems of enforcement and boost smuggling and the black market. Scotland’s most deprived areas are particularly resistant to the anti-smoking message and like the educational attainment gap, will only be addressed through supportive social and economic strategies

The Scottish Government’s anti-smoking strategy is not unlike its New Zealand counterpart. It aims to create a “Smoke Free Generation”, reducing the number of smokers by around 15% by 2034. Despite the obvious difficulties, it’s questionable if those policies and targets are sufficiently ambitious.

New Zealand’s approach is much more robust and all-embracing. Extensive consultations suggest a large majority of New Zealanders support the policies and direction of travel, particularly in relation to young people. It’s likely there would be similar support in Scotland for more ambitious and far-reaching measures that prevent youngsters becoming hooked in the first place. After all, too few of them will be lucky enough to share the sickening introduction to smoking that I “enjoyed” all those years ago.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.

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