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Is phasing out tobacco purchases simply a smokescreen?

Cat James
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Happy Stoptober! In the mid-1950s smoking was ubiquitous: cheap, legal and socially acceptable – the habit of eighty percent of this country’s adult population. Hollywood was alight with smouldering film stars; cigarettes a shorthand for sexual allure and rebelliousness.

The notion that smoking is for the cool kids continued into this century, although chugging on a gasper is probably more beguiling between the sensual lips of Kate Moss, rather than your leathery-faced nan – puckered mouth rasping out a fug of toxic gases.

It’s almost impossible to comprehend now, but in the street near my school stood a cigarette vending machine. By inserting a shiny fifty pence piece, I could dispense an even shinier golden packet of Benson and Hedges. I sparked up, as provocative as my punk rock heroines; all teenage attitude – and fag ash breath.

However, the price soon rocketed beyond my pocket money means, and I quit, preferring to spend my limited cash on bus fares and blue eyeshadow.

And it’s not only me; smoking rates have fallen since the 1970s. With annual tax increases, restrictions on where smokers can legally light up, health messaging and free expert support from quitting services, plus awareness of the incurable dangers of primary and secondary smoking – it’s surprising that anyone bothers at all. And many no longer do; according to the Office of National Statistics, in 2022 the UK had its lowest proportion of smokers since records began.

So it was intriguing that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak made smoking a keynote speech issue at the Conservative Party Conference. His plan is to reduce cigarettes’ availability by raising the legal smoking age every year by a year so that eventually no-one can buy tobacco. It’s a commendable aspiration, and is specifically designed to protect young people. However, modern teenagers’ nicotine intake is not primarily through a sneaky fag behind the bike sheds, but via electronic vaping devices.

These synthetic teats are a threat not only to children’s – and other users – health, but also the environment, with disposable contraptions flooding the market. A vape machine is a complicated gadget, available in various iterations (some refillable), generally constructed of metals, glass, ceramic and plastics, plus a battery, heating coil and chamber which contains sweeteners, flavouring, nicotine and other harmful chemicals.

Vape flavours have attractive confectionery-style names including ‘blue razz’ and ‘rainbow burst’ – far more palatable terms for highly-addictive substances to children than ‘overflowing ashtray’ and ‘grandad’s yellowed moustache’.

It’s laudable to help people live healthier lives, and to support them not to take up harmful habits. But legislating against one noxious product, without considering how the alternative is targeted is tackling only half the issue. Phasing out smoking will undoubtedly expand the demand for vaping devices, which are already increasing in popularity among youngsters.

Cynics might connect the Conservative‘s proposal, to the party’s £350k donation from Supreme 8 – a company accused of marketing vapes to children. But surely the Tories wouldn’t deliberately risk tempting people to become lifelong addicted health and environmental vapists, would they?

This article first appeared in print in the Isle of Wight County Press on 13 October 2023 and also online.

Photo by Pexels

Cat James

Graphic designer, creative director of Pinkeye Graphics, Isle of Wight County Press columnist, Cat out of Matt and Cat

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