Tobacco ban for people born after the year 2000 passes Tasmanian upper house

Dangerous restriction on liberty, or "unslippery slippery dip"?

The Tasmanian legislative council, the upper house of the Australian state's bicameral legislature, has passed a motion calling for sales of tobacco to anyone born after the year 2000 to be banned. The law, if passed through the lower house, would result in an effective outlawing of tobacco around the year 2100 in the state.

The Telegraph reports:

The measure was proposed by Ivan Dean, a Tasmanian independent MP, who said the ban would be easy to enforce because the state already has restrictions on sales of cigarettes to minors. It would be the world's first such age-based ban and is also reportedly being considered in Singapore and Finland.

Mr Dean, a former police officer and mayor, said the ban would prevent young people "from buying a product that they can't already buy" but would not affect adult smokers.

"This would mean that we would have a generation of people not exposed to tobacco products," he said.

"It would be easier for retailers to enforce because when they ask for ID, all they would need to see if the person was born after the year 2000 ... As the generation reaches 18 years, there will be fewer of them smoking and while some of those first turning 18 might smoke, as time goes on fewer and fewer will."

The act is unlikely to make it through the entire legislative procedure, however: the Labor health minister is in favour of it, but their coalition partners in the state, the Greens are opposed, as are the opposing Liberal party. In fact, the motion likely only made it this far due to the unusually un-partisan nature of the Legislative Council – 13 of the 15 members are independent.

The idea addresses a point rarely considered in discussions around addictive substances, which is the fundamental unfairness of limiting access to something which people became addicted to fully legally. While the absolute ban may never come into place, it is certainly an example which our Labour government could have learnt from when they raised the age for smoking from 16 to 18, at a stroke criminalising two years worth of teens who became addicted to tobacco entirely legally. How much fairer would it have been to push for a ban for anyone born after 1 October 1991 for two years, and only then raising the minimum age to 18?

The Telegraph piece does also have one of the more fantastic expert opinions in recent history. Addressing the idea that such a ban could also lead to bans on things like alcohol or fatty foods, Professor Simon Chapman argues that a tobacco is far more deadly than other products, and thus:

If the slope is slippery, it's the most unslippery slippery dip I have ever seen in my life.

The risks of smoking are just so off the table ... We started banning tobacco advertising in 1976 and there has been no other commodity where there has been anything like a serious move to do what we have done with tobacco.

A gentleman enjoys a cigarette at an Australian motorsports event. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Beijing smog. Getty
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China’s battle to breathe

Why smog is causing social unrest.

This is a war where you can’t even see your own enemy.” These are the words of the Chinese journalist Chai Jing in her documentary about air pollution, Under the Dome. Released in February 2015, the film was viewed online more than 150 million times in three days before it was removed by the government.

The enemy that provoked such a reaction was PM2.5, a microscopic particulate in the air that can penetrate deep into the lungs and bloodstream. It can cause health problems, including heart disease and lung cancer. Air pollution is a problem around the world but is particularly bad in China, where, as a result of rapid industrialisation (fuelled partly by Western demand for cheap products), concentration levels of PM2.5 are dangerously high. In March 2014, after nearly a decade of worsening air quality, the government declared a “war against pollution”.

The air quality index (AQI) in Beijing hit an average 130 in January this year, and it often exceeds 300 (although year-on-year levels have fallen slightly). The World Health Organisation recommends below 20 as healthy.

Recently, this near-invisible enemy has taken tangible form. The annual National People’s Congress, the parliamentary gathering attended by nearly 3,000 regional delegates from across China, will open in Beijing on 5 March. Smog will be at the top of its agenda. There are three reasons for this: the public health issue, international environmental commitments and the threat that toxic air poses to China’s political stability.

Last December, a group of artists fitted smog masks on statues in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, in south-western China, to draw attention to rising air pollution. Riot police were sent in, eight artists were arrested, the central Tianfu Square was blockaded and shopkeepers were told to alert the police to anyone buying large quantities of masks. Unauthorised protests are banned in China, but as one artist told the BBC: “There is no regulation that bans citizens from walking while wearing masks.”

For the inhabitants of China’s cities, there is no alternative if you want to minimise the harm done by breathing in PM2.5. The smog is an inescapable fact of daily life and one that undermines the rising living standards that have so effectively kept city-dwellers from voicing discontent with the government. Besides the events in Chengdu, there were protests in the city of Xi’an in the north-west and lawsuits against other local governments for failing to tackle the problem. A meme on Weibo, one of the most popular Chinese social media platforms, shows a panda wearing a smog mask bearing the slogan: “Chengdu, let me breathe!”

Citizens are starting to expect the government to do more to clean up the air. “People in the West . . . assume that dissatisfactions [in China] are about things like censorship and lack of political freedoms,” Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a professor of Chinese history at the University of California, Irvine, said by Skype. “But what really can motivate people are much more tangible things that affect their daily life.”

As a friend, a gallery assistant from Beijing who did not want to be named because of her fears about Western media, told me: “Worrying about the air and the water is just always occupying a part of your mind. You can’t forget about it.” She said she hopes that the smog will at least force the government to act.

Clean air is increasingly becoming a commodity. High-end air purifiers can cost £1,300-plus and an air quality monitor can sell for more than £100. Yann Boquillod, the founder of AirVisual, a Beijing-based start-up that produces tools to monitor air quality, told me that government red alerts about the smog are great for business, increasing demand for his products.

The government only started to publish information on air quality in 2012. Jennifer Turner, the director of the China Environment Forum at the US think tank the Woodrow Wilson Centre, describes this change as an element of the “most innovative policymaking in China”. “It was a risky action on the part of the government but, at the same time, the people were getting upset. The government is making efforts to show accountability,” she told me. However, more recently there have been reports of officials ordering forecasters to stop issuing smog warnings.

With or without a warning, you can feel it when the air quality is bad. The likes of Zhao Hui, a wealthy businessman, send their children to school abroad, where “clean air and safe food are just as important as education”. Yet, for most people, foreign education isn’t an option, and anger about inequality can make the discontent all the more potent. “[The smog] affects everywhere, but it doesn’t affect everyone equally,” Wasserstrom said. “This is part of what makes the government anxious about these protests. There’s more of this feeling of this being part of a national conversation.”

“Everyone knows it, hates it and makes ironic jokes,” Badiucao, a Chinese political cartoonist, told me in an email. His smog cartoons are particularly popular, he thinks, because they are considered “not directly political . . . hence less risky to share”. But he also believes that, for the Chinese, the health of their children is “the last red line”.

For those who can’t afford to send their children abroad, dissatisfaction with the state is rising and they are making their voices heard. The Beijing Municipal Education Commission recently agreed to instal air purifiers in schools in response to complaints by parents, having rejected similar calls a year ago. In addition to the official channels, social media platforms such as Weibo and WeChat (an online messaging service) allow people to voice discontent instantly and loudly.

The Chinese government is acutely aware of how combustible the situation has become. There is a saying that goes, “Zhi bao bu zhu huo” – “Paper cannot wrap fire.” Air purifiers and censorship can only do so much. No number of riot police can change one simple fact: that all over China, people can’t breathe. 

Amy Hawkins is a freelance journalist based in Beijing. You can follow her on Twitter @DHawkins93.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit