But as a policy, it failed miserably. It didn’t make you want them any less. If anything, it increased their attractiveness.
It is always tempting for those who believe something could be bad for you, or who even just don’t want to share, to restrict access. ‘You want it – you can’t have it!’ It has been a feature of regulation and accumulation since time immemorial.
The art collector who squirrels his collection deep in a vault so you can’t share it is only the dark side of the strict parent or the nanny state. And it can be counter-productive. You need only look back to 1920s America to see how attempts to prohibit liquor sales led to crime, mayhem and riot.
So what should we make of the suggestions by our own Health supremos that cigarettes should be removed from display on newsagent’s shelves? What is the logic? Well, ‘out of sight, out of mind’, seems to be the guiding principle.
It is true that the restrictions on smoking in public places have certainly had a singular effect on the impression that the environment is cleaner. You might still hear complaints by publicans and restaurateurs who feel that they have lost business as a result, and it is still too early to say definitely that the health of the nation – or even this Island – has dramatically improved, but it is generally accepted that smoking in public is anti-social and damaging to health, wherever it is practised.
Yet cigarettes are still purchased in huge quantities. Indeed, the tax revenue provides a substantial and welcome income for the national coffers. And it is reasonable to suppose that in the current climate, smoking will serve as a palliative or displacement activity. The chances are that it will remain well entrenched. So just removing cigarettes from display at the point of sale is unlikely to translate into a huge reduction in consumption.
Of course it’s the impressionable, in particular the young, for whom such protective measures are designed. But here I do have a concern, and it’s the same in relation to alcohol: if we extend the premise that here is another harmful drug which should be restricted and we remove the stuff from the shelves, where will they obtain it? For, get their hands on it they certainly will.
There is no doubt about the harm of tobacco and alcohol abuse, but both these ‘injurious substances’ which find themselves legitimately into the shopping basket are packaged under hygienic conditions, even if we despair of their impact.
But what about other forms of drugs – the heinous powders and pills? They have never been available from public vendors. They are unregulated, trafficked underhand with no check on seller or client, and their popularity among the young in particular is on the rise.
Moreover, they induce a craving which leads to equally anti-social behaviour in the attempt to fund the habit. So will removing ‘social’ drugs such as alcohol or tobacco from the shelves just contribute to pushing kids round the corner to imbibe hooch and imported ‘rag’ fags which will harm them further?
Now we all have responsibilities here – individuals, parents, manufacturers, vendors and the state. Perversely, the growth in personal income has coincided directly with a reduction in the cost of alcohol. Drinking in pubs which could, in theory at least, be supervised by landlords has been replaced by bingeing on supermarket offers where booze flies off the shelf in shrink-wrapped armfuls, cheaper than bottled water.
The ‘happy hour’ extends from dusk to dawn. The consumption of spirits and mixers is ‘cool’ and unsupervised. Youngsters are free to ‘tank up’ at home first, possibly with the knowledge of their kith and kin, and then go out with the expressed purpose of getting legless. It may provide them with a good time for a while and a wretched time for those who are forced to clear up after them. Mercifully, this Island has yet to experience the gross excess witnessed in town centres the length and breadth of the UK.
But the stark reality is that in a year our Island health statistics recorded 42 alcohol-related deaths and 350 hospital admissions directly attributed to its effect. The imposition of a legally enforceable minimum price per unit of alcohol may seem yet another stunt by a harassed administration, but it is certainly a better approach than attempting to go down the ‘under the counter’ route.
Obviously there is a balance to be struck. Pleasure has its price. The cost to society of medical care has to be set against not only the benefits to the exchequer, but also the welfare of its citizens. And it’s not in the politicians’ nature to paint themselves as serial killjoys when there are votes to be sought.
We have heard recently of the negative impact on business feared by local news-agents and other small businesses if cigarettes were to be hidden away. Frankly, as it’s illegal to sell the things to people under the age of 16 anyway, it’s hard to see how concealing them will actually affect sales. Nevertheless, if responsibility is abrogated on the home front, there’s bound to be pressure for it to be exerted at an institutional level.
Come to think of it, we are told that obesity represents the greatest threat to the health of Islanders as a result of our indulgent way of life. Maybe the health authorities should consider hiding food under the counter too!