The Independent Cancer Taskforce, which was set up by NHS England earlier this year, has suggested that a pack of cigarettes cost £15 by 2020. It’s not to spite us, but to support an initiative to target early diagnosis and save a further 30,000 lives a year.
We’re all for the price tag, but here's what you should really be concerned about.
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Smoking is an expensive and frankly stupid habit. And I say that as a smoker. I can categorically say that the reason I haven’t stopped smoking is because I enjoy it. I have no excuses and I’m under no pretences that I am making the smart decision. There will inevitably be a trigger that pushes me to quit, but I haven’t been looking for it.
That said, I have absolutely no intention of being a lifelong smoker. And let’s be realistic, tobacco is a luxury. So, perhaps if one pack of smokes cost a third of my weekly food budget, the joy of sitting down at the end of the day and puffing quietly in an otherwise noisy life would leave a bittersweet taste in my mouth. Not to mention a painful dent in my wallet. It might be my trigger.
In that respect, an increase in tax for cigarettes from around £9 to £15 would, for all intents and purposes, be a successful tactic to get the likes of me to stop slowly killing themselves. But the devil is in the detail. While I am on board with this for the most part, a lack of transparency of what this influx of money from smokers pockets would be going to is concerning. My opinion on the matter would be less accepting if I had the knowledge that the money was being fed into anything except helping people quit, cancer research, preventative strategies, NHS equipment and treatment or NHS wages. However, this is the nature of recommendations and we’ll need to wait for developments.
In terms of the changes we have seen around smoking, raising the age limit on buying tobacco and introducing the UK wide smoking ban in 2007 were no-brainers. While people were up in arms about being put out in the cold, the number of second-hand smokers dropped by around 70 percent in five years. All good, right? Sort of. While it protected non-smokers (hurrah!), it did little to deter people from smoking, as any social smoker in a designated area will illustrate.
Warnings and stomach-churning images on packets make for good opportunities for peers to chastise, and you may have noticed the fact that your local Tesco has erected an iron curtain which hides an Aladdin’s cave of tobacco products behind it. Once you’ve been reduced to your former 16-year-old self, provided five types of ID and resorted to showing the cashier your maxed-out credit card in a final bid to prove you are actually 25, you may pick your poison.
Yet one in five adults still smoke in the UK.
By 2016, cigarette packs will only have those warnings and be in plain packaging, and we’ll be saying goodbye to 10-packs and menthols according to new EU regulations. By 2020, if the government takes on the Independent Cancer Taskforce’s recommendations, they’re hoping in a fall of smoking levels from 18.4% to 13%. And any smokers left will be broke.
These changes are recommended in good faith, for public health and to alleviate pressure on our ever-enduring NHS. That said, there is a danger in creating and forcing a drug culture around cigarettes. The Department of Health and cancer charities are in support of increasing a levy against tobacco companies that they hope could lead to a cigarette-free world by 2040. It’s a worthy dream, but let’s not be naïve.
Cigarettes will still be available, you’ll just have to risk it with unregulated, more harmful products on the black market. Much like your staple club drugs, and the world’s favourite green leaf, the answer does not lie in trying to shove them underground. In the case of cigarettes, more should be invested in safer alternatives. E-cigarettes have become a $6 billion market worldwide, yet we still aren’t quite sure how much better they are for you and at the moment it looks like they’ll be subjected to similar regulations.
If we want to deal with the problem of smoking, price rises and regulation will of course lessen some of the issues, and we should be all for that. But we must exercise caution in creating a situation that could leave us with an equally large social and public health issue, only trickier to deal with.