There is an injunction that could be applied as well to ministers as to gamblers or even smokers: quit while you're ahead. Unfortunately, it is not advice this Government always understands.
Last summer England joined Scotland and much of Europe when the long-heralded law banning smoking in public places finally came into effect. We would have preferred a ban that was driven by the market, rather than by legislative diktat: one that pubs and clubs – say – would choose to impose because they attracted more custom that way, rather than because the Government told them to.
In the event, though, the move seemed to chime with the public mood. The prohibition has been widely observed, with relatively few businesses complaining that profits have declined. Smoking is reported to be down sharply, which should be good for the nation's health.
Then last autumn, in an effort designed specifically to cut the number of young smokers, the legal minimum age for buying tobacco was increased from 16 to 18. Bringing the law on tobacco into line with that for alcohol seemed an entirely sensible move. And again, aside from a few predictable grumbles, the change seemed to be quickly accepted.
Now, though, the Government – in the person of the minister for public health, Dawn Primarolo – seems to be pressing its case too far. Among the new measures she is considering to discourage young smokers is a requirement that shops remove cigarettes and tobacco products from view. Shops would have to sell tobacco literally under the counter.
The thinking is that invisibility would reduce the temptation: out of sight and out of mind. We wonder, though, whether it might not rather introduce an additional element of desirability, as cigarettes came to be seen even more as forbidden fruit. By all means require cigarettes to be kept beyond reach behind the counter – they are mostly there already. Having to ask for them may make the purchaser think twice and gives the sales assistant time to verify ID if necessary.
So long as tobacco – and, for that matter, alcohol – are legal, however, it is ridiculous to suggest that there should be a ban on displaying them. Temptation and choice are integral to marketing and consumption in the modern world. Coping with that is part of being an adult.
If there is any tightening up to be done, it is in enforcing the existing age restriction on buyers, whether of cigarettes or alcohol. Shopkeepers caught selling to minors – either because they are careless or feel intimidated – should be subject to the full force of the law. Selling cigarettes and tobacco under the counter would be every bit as reprehensible as it sounds.