Belfast Telegraph

Why war on cigs will run out of puff long before the smokers do

By Lindy McDowell

Where I think government's/Stormont Assembly's war on the ciggies is going wrong is this ... On the one hand they're doing everything in their power to make the fags invisible - demanding cigarettes be kept out of sight in shops, ordering them to be sold in plain packaging.

On the order hand - thanks to previous policy - smoking and smokers have been never more visible.

They stand outside bars and workplaces these days, happy, social, chatty little knots of people who seem to be having more fun than the rest of us as we gaze at them from our suddenly-emptied table or office.

To the young especially, smoking must seem like just the coolest thing these days. It makes you, literally, an outsider.

Throw in a bit of palaver about having to seek out the ciggies at the newsagent and then having them presented to you in the packaging equivalent of a brown envelope and it's almost Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy territory.

"What have you got in that wee box?"

"Can't say for security reasons."

But will all that nonsense about keeping the fags under the counter and in plain packaging in future actually put smokers off buying them? I know what my money would be on.

I know this because if they were to extend these marketing restrictions to also selling chocolate and vodka under dull wrapper I'd still buy the stuff.

So I don't imagine smokers are going to be put off by the absence of a bit of branding on the box either. (Anyway how long before some savvy entrepreneur is producing designer cigarette box covers, a bit like mobile phone covers, to give your 20-pack a bit of wow?)

The artist David Hockney is among those who have waded into the debate in recent days telling the Government where to butt out.

"The anti-tobacco professionals have gone far too far in a country that prides itself on freedoms," he argues.

"Denying cigarette companies the right to decorate their cigarette packets is a draconian measure of which Stalin's censorship police would have been proud.

"It suggests that the Government thinks it can control our thoughts and our desires. Well, it can't ..."

You don't have to be a smoker (and I'm not, never have been) to acknowledge that he has a point about grown-up people being allowed to make up their own minds.

Sometimes the more you try to make something unattractive, the more attractive you make it seem. We are all aware of the health risks. But it is possible to overplay the scare tactics.

Especially - and this is the big one - since the Government hasn't actually banned smoking. It thus sends that skewed message (particularly to the young) that smoking is harmful to your health and a terrible, terrible drain on the health service.

But not so bad that the Government will move to take the ultimate sanction.

And it can't ban fags entirely, of course. How could they ever police such a ban? Illegal cigarettes are already being sold in tonnes here as taxes rise and smokers look for a cheaper option.

The Government's proposed new rules will merely make things trickier for the newsagent rather than the customer.

As those cheery, chatty crowds in the designated outdoor area attest, smoking itself is far from out of puff.

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