Christmas is the time for parties and fun – a last blast before turning over a new leaf in the New Year. Stopping smoking is the classic New Year’s resolution for good reason: those who give up can gain up to 10 years’ life expectancy and quitting is always worthwhile at any age.
Smoking is an addiction most smokers will come to bitterly regret. No one wants to be lectured or nannied but we cannot simply sit back and hope things will get better. The Liberal Democrat consultation on health, drawn up by Paul Burstow in the autumn, puts the argument well: “the State has a legitimate role in promoting healthier behaviour because of the impact of ill health on autonomy and life chances.”
A big part of this is designing an environment that makes it easier for people to choose what is best for themselves and for society. The book Nudge, written by Cass Sunstein, now working for the Obama administration, and Richard Thaler, who is advising the British Government, shows how powerful interventions that use behavioural psychology can be. For example, they found that changing the layout of a school canteen can greatly increase the amount of fruit children eat. They also showed that ‘social norms’ can have a huge effect. When people overestimate how common an unhealthy behaviour is, they are more likely to behave in that way themselves. Publicising the true ‘social norms’ can snap people out of the fantasy that their drinking, smoking or eating habits are the same as everyone else’s.
With the end of almost all cigarette advertising and no more smoking in enclosed public places, we have already changed the environment for our children for the better. Half as many 11-15 year olds smoke as they did in the mid-1990s but an enormous loophole in the advertising ban remains: the display of tobacco in shops. Often next to sweets and crisps, the brightly lit and colourful displays show off row upon row of cigarette brands like huge adverts for tobacco.
A powerful ‘nudge’ would be to deny this marketing opportunity for the tobacco industry by covering up displays. Ireland took this step a year ago and research has found that teenagers’ beliefs about the number of their peers who smoke have fallen considerably, making them less inclined to smoke themselves. They also think it is harder to buy cigarettes than before.
Reflecting the effectiveness of this measure, the tobacco industry has been using its usual tactics of promoting scare stories, misusing statistics, acting through front groups and mounting tenuous legal challenges. They have alarmed many retailers. Last week, the president of the National Federation of Retail Newsagents (NFRN) wrote in Lib Dem Voice. Despite the numerous papers in the peer reviewed literature showing the measure will work, he claimed there was no independent evidence for its effectiveness. He also said, wrongly, that retailers had suffered when it was introduced in Ireland and other countries.
John McClurey , a Lib Dem councillor and a former North of England President of the NFRN, shared these concerns so he travelled to Ireland to speak to retailers about their experiences and found the tobacco industry’s claims were totally unjustified. Existing smokers carried on visiting their local shops while retailers were able to make the necessary changes easily and cheaply – the Association of Convenience Stores found the average cost was £300 and the tobacco industry often covered the cost, a fact that they have not mentioned in the debate in the UK. Mr McClurey says “I prefer selling birthday cards to sympathy cards. If my customers live longer, I’m going to sell a lot more birthday cards before I sell a sympathy card.”
The Coalition Government is set to announce its decision on putting tobacco out of sight in the New Year and Cancer Research UK is urging them to put tobacco out of sight and out of mind. When thousands will be quitting, it’s the perfect time to help stop children starting to smoke in the first place.
Jean King is Cancer Research UK’s Director of Tobacco Control.
‘The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.