So Kate Moss has been doing her bit for the kids again, eh? On No Smoking Day, and the day on which the government announced future measures to help deter smoking in the UK, Moss strutted down a catwalk at the Luis Vuitton show in Paris and lit up a fag – to the wild appreciation of onlookers.
The trouble with Kate Moss, of all people, promoting smoking in this way is that she is the exact opposite of what health advisers tell us we will look like if we smoke regularly. With clear skin, bright eyes and barely a wrinkle in sight (although I think I'm right in saying those high ponytails are being pulled back a little tighter these days), she's the epitome of what young girls want to be now, let alone when they're 37 years old. She makes smoking look cool.
With people like her around, what hope the do the authorities have? Even the government is aware that its plans to remove cigarette displays from all shops by April 2015 are unlikely to stop regular smokers from buying their usual brand. It might make those people just a little more uncomfortable about their dirty habit, being served fags from under the counter, but they're getting hardened to their marginalisation and it seems their grip on the fag packet just tightens with each new blow.
The main objective of the new laws are to deter young people from taking up the wicked weed in the first place and arguments abound over whether removing cigs from shop shelves and putting them into plain boxes will actually make a difference. Harpal Kumar, chief executive of Cancer Research UK, thinks so: "Plain packs are less attractive, especially to young people, and they make the health warnings on cigarette packs more effective."
While (in the words of a major tobacco-stocking supermarket) every little helps, I don't think that theory credits young people with a great deal of intelligence. Research has shown that they are indeed affected by tobacco displays, but surely their decision to try cigarettes in the first place is more about social influences which the government has relatively little control over?
Peer pressure is powerful, and if a young person's social group says smoking is cool, then smoking is cool – it makes no odds if the packets are multi-coloured with flashing lights or if they're plain mud coloured. In fact, the more illicit cigarettes become, the cooler will be the teen who manages to get his hands on them. This was the case when I was in school anyway, and I'm not such a dinosaur. The kid who always carried a pack of Marlboro reds was the big man. The kid who produced a small pouch of hash from his top pocket (and there was nothing very exciting about that packaging) was god in the eyes of 'cool and the gang'.
What's more, smoking is a socioeconomic issue. Children from working class backgrounds are considerably more likely to smoke – and to smoke into adulthood – than those from more affluent households. Even successive price hikes haven't altered that statistic. In the deprived town of Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales, which has particularly high levels of unemployment and families claiming benefits, the average age for a child to light up is nine. Nine! Clearly, there are parents and shopkeepers in that area whose attitudes are going to be something of a sticking point for a government who wants to kerb smoking in young people. Would plain packaging have deterred the idiotic parents there who gave their three-year-old cigarettes because they thought it was funny?
I smoke a bit – though never, ever in sight of my children. I've smoked on and off since my teens and I don't know what the answer is. If I did, I'd probably also be clever enough to invent a time machine so I could go back to the early 90s and apply my theories before I ever took bloody smoking up. I think the key for the future, though, must be in making fags the uncoolest thing on earth. Never mind the packaging – the government should start forcing people like Henry Kelly (or is he cool in a kitsch way?) to smoke in prime time advertising slots between X Factor.
I don't mean to make light of it, but kids think they're invincible, they think they'll live forever. As long as supremely successful and sexy people like Kate Moss pull out the fags publicly (in her case, in a suspiciously self-promotional stunt to get herself back in the spotlight after several seasons away from the catwalk), then the government, school teachers and health advisers are going to have their work cut out convincing kids that smoking isn't cool. I mean, what could be a more attractive package for a cigarette than the perfect pout of an international supermodel?
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