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Should some people never be allowed to smoke?

A report says the UK government should continuously raise the legal smoking age.

Although there’s been a downward trend in smoking rates for a long time, there are still six million smokers in England. The government wants to make England a ‘smoke-free’ society - which it actually defines as less than 5 percent of adults being smokers - by 2030.

One suggestion for reaching this goal has been to increase the age at which people can buy tobacco by one year every year, so everyone who is currently under the legal smoking age of 18 would never be allowed to buy cigarettes. (Such a scheme has already been introduced in New Zealand.) The logic behind this policy is that the easiest way to stop being a smoker is to never start being one, and most people who smoke started young. Because the nicotine in cigarettes is addictive, it can be hard to stop the habit once it’s formed: it takes a smoker on average thirty attempts at quitting before they succeed.

It is unquestionable that smoking has a serious impact on people’s health. In 2019, smoking accounted about 15 percent of all deaths in England – or more than 200 people dying every day. Without smoking, many of these people would have lived for a considerably longer time: tobacco is the number one cause of preventable cancer (it can cause 15 different types of the disease). The health costs of smoking are not just borne by individuals – economies are also affected. Removing the illness and death caused by cigarettes would free up healthcare resources and government welfare payments. It could also increase productivity as more people stay in work and take fewer sick days.

Spending less money on cigarettes would also give smokers more money to spend on other things: £24 billion a year is currently spent on tobacco in the UK. Moreover, because smoking rates in poorer communities are often higher than in affluent ones, cigarettes may be creating financial strain for many people, especially during this cost-of-living crisis. Zooming out to society-wide benefits again, if a smoke-free society was achieved it is estimated that the number UK jobs would increase by 500,000. This is because the tobacco industry requires fewer workers to produce its products than many other industries. So if the money currently spent on cigarettes was instead spent on other goods and services then demand for those things would go up and with it demand for the workers who create those goods and services.

Despite all this, some people are still against the smoking-age-increase policy. A lot of the opposition boils down to a concern for individual rights and the freedom of being able to choose. After all, smoking can be a pleasurable experience for people. If they want to take the risk that that pleasure might come with some health costs, shouldn’t they be able to?

Some people say no, they should not. These counterarguments can take several forms. One is that people, especially young ones, are so bad at factoring in long-term risk that it’s irresponsible to let them chance causing such severe harm to themselves. After all, the UK doesn’t let people choose to not wear seatbelts or to inject heroin into their veins. Others point to all the society-wide costs that come with things like smoking as justification for why communities should get a say in whether an individual can smoke.

One pushback to both these arguments is that these lines of thinking can be a slippery slope. There are lots of other lifestyle choices that are linked to poor health outcomes; Happy Hours, McDonalds, unprotected sex, parkour. But a lot of people would dislike the government legislating such activities. On top of that, some people think it’s problematic to have a policy that would divide a society into people who can do something and people who cannot. Essentially, if this policy was put in place everyone who happened to be born after a certain year would be told to live by a different set of laws than their older peers. That could cause resentment and division. A sense of unfairness might also make it less likely that people would adhere to the policy at all. After all, there will almost certainly always be non-legal ways for ‘underage’ people to get hold of cigarettes.

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