Terence Blacker: Smoking - the habit the world loves to hate

Wines and spirits cause far more collateral damage than tobacco

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The Independent Online

It can be the devil's own job buying a packet of cigars these days. One usually has to visit a large supermarket, an unpleasant experience in itself. There, one joins a queue of hollow-eyed addicts – gambling addicts, that is, because these days smokers have to share a counter with poor saps hooked on the National Lottery. Finally, a cupboard must be opened to reveal a treasure-trove so gorgeous that it has to be hidden from view. You point to the object of your desire – "That's the one, with 'SMOKING KILLS' on the front" – and, having made a significant contribution to the Exchequer, you have your cigars.

An additional obstacle may soon be in place. This week, an Australian court confirmed a law that will require all tobacco products to be sold in plain green packets, decorated only by health warnings and gross-out pictures of tumours.

Few people have been surprised. We live in a world of goodies and baddies, and smoking is top of the league of perceived badness, well ahead of other unhealthy forms of human pleasure. Announcing Australia's proud stand against it, Attorney General Nicola Roxon argued that governments should be "allowed to take public health measures to protect their community".

Those words sound innocent enough, but if politicians really believe it is their responsibility actively to legislate against citizens harming themselves, then the implications are significant. Wines and spirits, which cause far more collateral damage, should immediately be sold under plain labels, with photographs revealing the results of alcoholism, car crashes and violence. Fatty foods should be de-branded. Those colourful betting shops, which the British Government is so happy to encourage on our high streets, should have one generic façade, marked "Gambling Shop".

This week's faintly Soviet new initiative by the Australians is also unlikely to work. Tobacco will be cheaper, with a fortune saved on marketing. Those olive-green packets may even add a certain mystique to smoking. At a time when people love nothing better than smugly to disapprove of others less virtuous than they are, lighting up has become a bold expression of individuality. The moment Bradley Wiggins was photographed puffing on a roll-up, he won my vote for this year's particularly tricky BBC Sports Personality of the Year.

Being what doctors describe as a "trivial smoker", I have no particular worry if what I smoke is sold under plain wrappers. Indeed, it may well be sensible to discourage manufacturers from targeting the young. All the same, when one form of unhealthy human indulgence is de-branded by nannyish politicians while others, which are potentially more harmful, remain untouched, it makes neither moral nor logical sense.