Jeremy Laurance: How smoking takes its toll on the young

Shocking new evidence has convinced the Government to crack down on sale of tobacco to teenagers
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Virtually every smoker has their first cigarette as a teenager. By the age of 20 more than one in four young men and women are regularly puffing away.

It ought to make sense to target preventing smoking at the age when it starts - to nip the habit in the bud. Unfortunately, the evidence does not bear this out. Studies across the world have shown that restricting young people's access to cigarettes has little effect on consumption, as a review of research published in the US journal Pediatrics in 2001 confirmed.

It is not hard to see why. Sharing a fag behind the bike sheds is one of the rituals of growing up. Obtaining the ciggies is part of the challenge, whether they are begged from older schoolfriends, borrowed or stolen from unsuspecting parents.

Raising the age limit for buying cigarettes from 16 to 18 will not stop kids getting hold of fags. The standard ploy is to badger an older sibling of a friend to pick up a packet from the newsagents which is handed over outside. Most 15-year-olds today look as if they could be 18 anyway.

Increasing the age limit does have the undoubted merit of consistency. It makes no sense to permit young people access to tobacco, which is deadly in any quantity, two years before they are allowed access to alcohol, which most studies suggest is good for you in moderate amounts. On that ground alone, it should be supported.

It also sends a signal that smoking is inappropriate for children, and ought to be avoided in their presence.

But cynics will note that the proposal to raise the age limit for buying cigarettes has emerged as the Government is caught in the middle of a row over its botched proposals for a partial ban on smoking in public.

This is where the real hope for teenagers lies - banning smoking in public is part of creating a culture that discourages smoking.

Evidence shows that while education is effective with younger children, it is short-lived. Gruesome facts, such as that smoking makes your legs fall off - more people have amputations as a result of circulatory problems caused by tobacco than for any other reason - has a big impact on 11-year-olds, but by the time they are 13 they shrug it off. Far more important, is the example set by peers, parents and the public.

While the first fags may be smoked behind the bike sheds, teenagers quickly progress to bars and clubs where a cigarette with a drink is de rigueur.

The smoke-filled rooms where young people congregate to drink, chat, flirt and dance is where the habit is laid down. The more that can be done to restrict smoking in those social environments, the less likely they are to end up hooked.

This is why the Government's proposed partial smoking ban, which would exempt pubs and clubs that do not serve food, is mad. Ministers claim that more than 90 per cent of public spaces will be smoke-free. But, like the rodent killer who misses the nest, they ignore the crucible where the next generation of smokers is formed.