2 in 3 smokers wish they could stop and 9 in 10 wish they had never started. Photo: Getty
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Why we should ban the sale of cigarettes to people born after the year 2000

Someone who starts smoking at age 15 is three times more likely to die of tobacco related cancer than someone who starts in their mid-20s.

Humanity has never developed anything more deadly than the cigarette. The combination of its addictive power and devastating health effects, coupled with historical social norms and powerful advertising campaigns, killed 100 million people in the twentieth century. The World Health Organisation predicts that this continuing epidemic will kill a billion more in the twenty-first. Tobacco products cause the death of 50 per cent of their users and, for each death, 20 other people suffer from a smoking related disease. Allowing this cycle of addiction, suffering and death to continue is unconscionable.

One solution is to prohibit the sale of cigarettes to people born after the year 2000. As this generation reach 18 in 2018 they would be prevented from buying cigarettes for their lifetime in a move that would progressively phase out cigarette sales. This would have the effect of de-normalising smoking for an entire generation of children and slowly begin to reduce the harm caused by tobacco. Evidence published today in the Lancet shows the incredible effects that smoke-free legislation has had on child health, including reducing premature births and hospital attendances for asthma attacks. It’s time to apply the lessons from this evidence to the population as a whole.

This move may be unpopular among people who view banning the sale of cigarettes as a restriction of personal freedom. However, starting to smoke predominantly takes place in childhood and adolescence, as 80 per cent of smokers start in their teens. This decision is heavily influenced by peer pressure and a desire to appear more adult, rather than being dependent on rational choice. Almost 99 per cent of people think adolescents should be prevented from taking up smoking and to achieve this smoking must become socially unacceptable. This is particularly important as someone who starts smoking at age 15 is three times more likely to die of tobacco related cancer than someone who starts in their mid-20s. By the time smokers reach adulthood, the majority continue smoking to relieve the unpleasant sensation of nicotine withdrawal, rather than to gain any pleasurable effect from the nicotine itself. Addiction, by definition, cannot be an expression of free will. This is reflected in the fact that 2 in 3 smokers wish they could stop and 9 in 10 wish they had never started. If smoking were a true choice, there would be far fewer smokers in the world.

The inevitable comparison of this policy with alcohol prohibition in the 1920s is hard to ignore. However, substantial differences exist between the nature of alcohol and the nature of tobacco. Most people who smoke are nicotine addicts responding to withdrawal symptoms who wish they could stop. In contrast, the majority of people who drink alcohol do so recreationally for its pleasurable effects. Alcohol is substantially less addictive than nicotine and so a much smaller proportion of drinkers become alcoholics. If 90 per cent people who drank became alcoholics there would be total public outrage. In recognition of the harms caused by tobacco, over time there has been a supportive public response to tobacco legislation, including health warnings, advertising bans, smoke-free public places and preventing smoking in cars with children. It would be surprising to suddenly see a large proportion of the population take up clandestine smoking in response to this kind of ban, particularly as current smokers would be able to continue buying cigarettes without hindrance.

While smoking is still seen as socially acceptable in daily life and believed to be an expression of free will it is unlikely that there will be sufficient political will to call for an outright ban. However, this policy presents an opportunity to intervene for the generation who have not yet started smoking to prevent them from perpetuating the cycle of misery and suffering caused by nicotine addiction. It’s time to play the tobacco endgame and begin building the first smoke free generation.

Dr Tim Crocker-Buqué is a Speciality Registrar in Public Health Medicine

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.