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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Saturday 1st October 2011

In England, from today, the sale of cigarettes from vending machines becomes illegal. It’s another small step to try and reduce the number of young people taking up smoking. The other parts of the UK (Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) are expected to follow suit within a year.

The ban is based on evidence that 11% of under-18s who smoke buy their cigarettes from vending machines. As always with tobacco control measures there is debate about how effect a measure will be and what harm it will do.

        Nicotiana sylvestris, woodland tobacco        Nicotiana sylvestris, woodland tobacco

Of course, those 11% will find another way of obtaining their cigarettes. It would be naïve to think that a child would quit smoking just because they could no longer obtain their supplies without any adult contact. The hope is that some children will not smoke that first cigarette if they have to ask another human being to supply it. ‘Another human being’ could mean a shopkeeper willing to ignore the law on selling to under-18s or it could mean someone who is willing to buy cigarettes for someone who is underage or it could be just asking a friend for one cigarette to try.

Nicotiana sylvestris, woodland tobacco

There is the usual outcry about the change from sections of the pub trade. And, as usual, it makes no sense at all. A spokesman for the British Beer and Pub Association is quoted as saying that landlords won’t want to sell cigarettes over the counter because it meant having a ‘high-value’ item behind the bar. You’d think that landlords would welcome the fact that adults wanting to buy cigarettes would have to come to the bar where they would be presented with opportunities to buy drink or food. Not welcoming it sounds like not wanting to acknowledge that they have underage people in the pub.

There are always voices opposed to any move to exert tighter control on the availability of tobacco products. Some of those voices are from people who simply do not accept that tobacco is harmful. When I was taking tours around the Alnwick Garden Poison Garden I would always describe plants in the Nicotiana genus as ‘the biggest killers’. (Nicotiana tabacum is the species used to produce most of the commercial tobacco but it doesn’t do well in a northern European climate so, at Alnwick, we grew Nicotiana sylvestris, woodland tobacco, as an example of the genus.)

Nicotiana sylvestris, woodland tobacco

On a number of occasions, I was heckled at this point by someone saying ‘rubbish’ or the like and a few people would say, with conviction, after the tour ‘Smoking has never killed anybody’. I accept that you can argue about the extent of the harm done by tobacco smoke, particularly to non-smokers who come into contact with it, and I fully accept that there are other things in the world that can cause harm but I really don’t see how anyone can cling to the notion that smoking does not reduce the lifespan of around 50% of all smokers.

I was once told that, in France, especially the rural areas, there was a problem with people distilling their own spirits. Rather than try and enforce an outright ban on such activity, the French set a date and said that anyone born after that date could not distil alcohol for themselves. Older people could do so for personal consumption. I haven’t been able to confirm if what I was told, by an elderly Frenchman who offered me a sample of his ‘brandy’, is true but the point is this is a sound approach to dealing with a situation that should be the main driver for tobacco control.

What matters most is to try and reduce the number of new smokers so that, over time, the prevalence of smoking in the total population is reduced. Making it harder for children to buy cigarettes has to be a good move even if it is only a small step.

The next step, currently being considered before legislation is drafted, is to force plain packaging onto manufacturers. It is interesting that the manufacturers are strongly opposed to this. If attractive packaging is so important to the tobacco companies then one assumes they would only use it if forced to by law. If the UK is the first country to compel plain packaging then it would become much harder for illegally imported cigarettes to be sold. The tobacco companies have always denied that they turn a blind eye to illegal re-importing by, for example, supplying millions of cigarettes to what should be a small outlet in Europe.