Leading article: Lives are saved by stubbing out this addiction

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The Independent Online

Giving up is very hard to do. In the case of tobacco, long-term quit rates by established smokers are less than 10 per cent. To have a real impact on a habit that costs the NHS £50m a week to treat, new recruits need to be deterred from taking it up.

Yesterday's announcement of a ban on shop displays of tobacco products was therefore welcomed by the anti-smoking lobby. Evidence from countries which already have a similar ban in place – Saskatchewan in Canada and Iceland, to name just two – have seen falls of between 10 and 25 per cent in youth smoking.

Cynics who suspected a Government sleight of hand when the Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, announced a review of the legislation introduced by Labour soon after the election have been wrongfooted. The stated reason for the review was the need to "ensure an appropriate balance between public health and burdens on businesses." Public health has won out.

Around 400 children start smoking each day, the adult smokers of tomorrow. Having declined for decades, the number of adult smokers levelled off about a decade ago and today hovers around 21 per cent. To drive the numbers lower means progressively "denormalising" the habit. The ban on smoking in public in 2007 was attacked by some as an unacceptable infringement of civil liberties. In the event the new law was introduced with barely a murmur of protest. It is now widely seen as a successful public health intervention.

Shop displays are the last arena where cigarette manufacturers can market their wares, since tobacco advertising was banned in 2002. The displays promote brands to young people and may trigger impulse buys by those who did not intend to purchase cigarettes in the first place. Putting cigarettes in plain packaging, on which the Government is now to consult, would represent the completion of this work – by separating the brand from the cigarette. The packs would be white or brown with no glitzy colours or logo. They would carry the same health warnings as at present, making them stand out more.

One final message could, perhaps, be added. Smoking has claimed more than a million lives in Britain in the last 50 years. That's enough.

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