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Bob Blackman MP: The tobacco display ban will be a powerful and healthy nudge

Blackman Bob Bob Blackman is MP for Harrow East.

Our society is changing: it is getting older and we are living longer. The baby boomers are reaching retirement age, while 1 in 4 children born today are predicted to live to be over a hundred. With the changing nature of our population is the concomitant strain on the health services. Health care providers are faced with new demands on time and resources and it is imperative that we increase the standard of care provided to tackle preventative illnesses.

In March, the Secretary of State for Health published the tobacco control plan; the document highlighted the dangers of smoking and the detrimental effect that the consequences have upon smokers and their families. Smoking kills 100,000 people a year in the UK – a horrifying figure when most smokers want to give up decade long addictions. Policy Exchange calculated that the costs to the UK including NHS services, absenteeism, lost productivity due to premature death and fires caused by smoking were £13.7 billion.

My parents both died of cancer brought on by habitual smoking and I passionately believe in encouraging young people not to start smoking in the first place. I remember one lesson in a biology class at school which demonstrated the damage done to the lungs as a result of smoking. As University President thirty years ago, I introduced a smoking ban in the University Union cafeteria, which was a resounding success in making meals more pleasant for everyone. The impact of the more recent smoking ban in pubs, restaurants and public buildings has now made these places more enjoyable. If people want to smoke they can do so, but outside so they do not impact on non-smokers.

It is right that the days of intrusive governing are over but we cannot simply allow such damaging behaviour to continue with insufficient support available for those who wish to rid their lives of this addiction. I welcome that fact that David Cameron has set up a behavioural insight team in the heart of his Government to help design an environment that is conducive to healthy behaviour.

The methods used to improve healthy living are important in allowing individuals to make their own decisions with only slight ‘nudges’ coming from government. These methods are already being used to great success; for example, changing the layout of a school canteen can increase the amount of fruit children eat. The logic follows that making something detrimental to our health harder to obtain will decrease demand and therefore negate the harmful effects.  On his election to the leadership of the Conservative Party, David Cameron produced a reading list for the shadow front benches. On this list was the very interesting and thoughtfully written Nudge. The authors elucidated the ways in which retailers actively shape our choices.

Shopkeepers have known for years that displaying the right product in the right place can greatly increase sales. The spot behind the till is the coveted prime location because it is the one focus of attention for every paying customer. In convenience stores and petrol stations, pride of place goes to tobacco products. The challenge for government is how to counter these unhealthy nudges with healthy ones. This is not only important in tackling the uptake of smoking but in helping those trying to quit. We must ensure that this process, initiated by free choices, is not hindered by the desires of the profiteering tobacco companies.

Andrew Lansley has quite rightly stated that putting in place advertising to tackle social norms can act as a means of re-education. It is important that we do not allow an accepted complacency that inevitably results in ill health. We must not intercept these so-called ‘social norms’ and the effect that they can have upon our children.

A powerful and healthy nudge will be to deny this marketing opportunity for the tobacco industry. Two powerful drivers of youth smoking are young people’s idea of how many of their peers smoke and how easy they think it would be to get hold of cigarettes themselves.

Importantly, this is not an untried initiative. Ireland put tobacco products out of sight almost two years ago and research has found that fewer young people have an exaggerated idea of how many people smoke and many think it is harder to buy cigarettes than before.

Irish businesses have not suffered. Long term trends in tobacco smuggling are unchanged and retailers found it cost a few hundred pounds to convert each shop with tobacco manufacturers often paying the bill. While this is chicken feed to big supermarkets it is right that smaller shops have extra time, until 2015, to find the cheapest and easiest ways to make the change.

Picture 5 Teen smoking rates in Canada have also fallen steadily. This fall cannot all be due to display bans as rates fell before and after display bans were introduced. That is because tobacco promotion is only one factor in youth smoking. We Conservatives have argued that there banning displays and vending machines in isolation is ineffective; what we needed was a proper plan that tackles all the major factors at once. The Government has provided us with just such a plan, a plan that recognises the importance of tackling tobacco smuggling as well as helping smokers who choose to quit.

In the same way that the abolition of tobacco advertising on our streets, magazines and television sets was the right thing to do I believe that that the same argument could and should be extended to our retailers. This argument does not condone overbearing governance but, equally, we cannot allow the active promotion of that which we know to be harmful. Now is the time to ensure that people are not tempted to buy cigarettes by skilful manipulation by retailers.


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