Health Check

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The Independent Culture
I AM not a great believer in bribery but I did make one exception. As soon as my two sons were old enough to understand the cost of a copy of The Beano and a Kinder Egg, I promised them pounds 500 when they were 21 if they didn't smoke. In exactly one year's time I expect to be paying out to the eldest and I am convinced it is the best investment I will ever make in my family's health.

I am therefore out of sympathy with the Australian public who have, according to a report in the British Medical Journal, taken against Shane Warne, the cricketer, for accepting the admittedly rather more generous bribe of $200,000 Australian dollars (pounds 77,000) to try to give up smoking using Nicorette chewing gum.

It is not, apparently, the sum involved that has angered ordinary Australians but the principle of bribing someone to do something that they should be doing anyway. Callers to radio stations have pointed out that promoting hair transplants, as former Test cricketer Greg Matthews did, is one thing but taking money to quit smoking is quite another.

All very odd, but it may be that in Britain we take a less self-righteous line. A New Year survey by the makers of NiQuitin CQ nicotine patches found that most people would be in favour of small bribes paid by companies to employees who tried to give up. The bonus for the employers would come in the form of lower sickness absence among their workforce.

Whatever the effect of a small bribe on an adult it cannot possibly match that of a large bribe on a child. In offering my sons pounds 500 a piece, I was continuing a family tradition (my father's offer to my brother and sister and I was pounds 100). My own belief is that its maximum impact on my children was between the ages of about seven and 11, when the prospect of an unimaginably large sum of money served to anchor anti-smoking messages being served up at school.

Primary school children share a universal commitment to environmentalism and against toxic contaminants of all kinds, and the money meant that tobacco stood out as the most noxious substance of all.

I do, it is true, have a few hard questions to ask of the eldest about the long white cylinder stuck behind his ear in a photo he brought home from university this Christmas. Perhaps it is tightly rolled crib notes on Plato, a joint, a white pen top, or a device for snorting cocaine. I was not so foolish as to believe that my bribe would eliminate all experimentation. Experimentation is inevitable - necessary, even - and parenting is the art of the possible. As a friend once said to me, teenagers will always do everything at the equivalent of 100 miles an hour and the best you can hope for is to stop them doing it at 150 miles an hour.

In its recent white paper, Smoking Kills, the Government committed pounds 50m over three years to anti-smoking advertising to persuade young people to desist from the habit, a huge increase on the pounds 3m a year currently spent. It would, it is true, cost a great deal more to offer a realistic bribe to every teenager who resisted the lure of the weed - plus the cost of random urine tests to check the veracity of claimants - but what better investment in health could we make? Like the World Health Organisation's campaign to eliminate polio, we might wipe out smoking in a generation.

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