Leading article: Sex and smoking -time to rewrite the script

Click to follow
You're 16, you may or may not be beautiful - or have lips like strawberry wine - but, male or female, the one thing you are likely to be is confused about what society expects you to say, do or think. One thing you know is that those GCSE results matter and the four weeks before results are out are going to be nail-bitingly tough. How different it was 15 years ago, let alone a generation ago. Then 16 was when you "left school", when many took jobs. Now, 16 is just a stage in an extended process of learning even though, by 16, many are indeed working part-time. Once, a 16-year-old who wasn't working was considered a toff or a failure. Now, a 16-year-old who is working full-time is considered a failure, an early loser in life's lottery.

As for the do's and don'ts of life ... You cannot get in to see sexy or violent films at the cinema until you are 18 (though how easy it is to see them on video at home, let alone on TV late at night). No pubs; no cars. Just say no to drugs - especially Ecstasy and cannabis - while noting that some people seem intent on advertising the youthful appeal of alcopops. If you are a girl it is legal to have sex with a girl or a boy. If you are a boy it is legal to have sex with a girl but not with a boy or (sharp intake of breath) a man.

Did yesterday's smoke signals from the Government do anything to clear up the confusion, as ministers bore down on teenage smoking while signalling greater freedom for teenage gays? Superficially it looks bizarre to pressurise 16-year-olds not to smoke while indicating that the homosexual age of consent for males be lowered to 16. What would the British of a half-century ago, when homosexuality was taboo and illegal, while learning to smoke was a routine entry to adulthood, think of the values of 1997? As with teenage work, it can seem a topsy-turvy world. Doubtless moral conservatives will be denouncing the Government for its warped conviction that tobacco is more harmful than sex.

But, the trouble is, it is. Besides, the cases are entirely different. Tobacco first: cigarette smoking is a first-order cause of ill health and public spending. Huge numbers of those same mid-century teenagers who were taught to smoke by their parents have already died horrible deaths, or are dying early today, because of the habit. We know so much about smoking now that the scientific case against it is irrefutable. That being so, governments should energetically seek to persuade people - especially young people - not to start and, once they have, to stop.

Now sex. Of course government has concerns: safer sex is a legitimate object of policy. The consequences of sexual relationships in government organisations - notably the armed forces - need monitoring, to ensure that discipline is not breached or that discrimination occurs. But the sexual orientation of recruits is not the Government's business and it is surely only a matter of time before the Ministry of Defence musters the courage to face down the brass hats.

The immediate issue of equalising the age at which young men can consent to sex with men has been put there by Euan Sutherland's case before the European Court of Human Rights. The Government has withdrawn from the case and, to be consistent, will find it hard to resist the inevitable backbench move to adjust British law.

Nor should it. Two substantive arguments have been advanced in favour of maintaining the difference, apart from the trivial procedural point that the House of Commons visited the issue only recently. One is that homosexuality is absolutely wrong so any "extension" is compounding an evil. This view, surveys show, is held by considerable numbers of people. It was the cause of the original taboo and legislative ban. But now, as with smoking, we know better. We know that homosexuals are born, not produced by social pressure. (The fact that the vast majority of boys who went through hothouse single-sex boarding schools emerged as heterosexuals helps underline the point.) That knowledge makes homophobia and discrimination seem cruel bigotry, not sensible social protection.

The other argument is that boys of 16 are especially susceptible and need protection. Well, they are susceptible, just like their sisters. But that doesn't necessarily mean that the full force of the law should intervene. By and large, as that saddle-borne savant, John Wayne, put it, government should "stay the hell out of people's pants". Legal bans in the past did not stop boys having sex with one another or receiving older men's attentions. The law neither can nor should stop adolescents' striving for experience. It is true that sex, like smoking, can be dangerous to health - even fatal. But since people are always going to have sex (the same not being true with smoking), it is better to confront the dangers openly through education. Criminalising the actions of people considered in many other respects to be old enough to make rational choices, does not help that.

So we are in celebratory mood, then? Actually, no. Though we are against discrimination, we also believe that society is sex-obsessed, and that we are close to worshipping genital friction in a way that societies to come will regard as barmy. Parents, let alone 16-year-olds themselves, have to filter a thousand and one suggestions, from cinema and soap opera scripts to billboards and ballads, that sexual activity is morally neutral and that everyone (else) is doing it - even if real sex is less frequent and comes with a lot of messy and morally-important choices attached. It is our sex-saturated society, not the intervention of the law, that makes life complicated for teenagers today. But it is still the case that they are likelier to live through the difficulties and enjoy balanced and full lives if they don't smoke in the meantime.