As far as addictive lifestyle habits go, smoking is one of the most widespread and, unfortunately, one of the most dangerous. Tobacco smoking has long been associated with a long and frightening list of serious health problems, including a range of cancers, circulatory problems, coronary heart disease and pneumonia, to name but a few. Despite these well-publicised risks, millions of people in the UK continue to smoke, due in large part to the highly addictive nature of the habit, which is thanks to the addictive chemical nicotine.
The difficulties in giving up smoking are well-documented, with stop smoking campaigns being launched regularly from charities and governmental organisations in a bid to reduce the numbers of smokers. In fact, there could be a case to be made that too much focus is placed on stopping smoking, and not enough is done to put people - particularly young people - off smoking in the first place. Of all the answers to this problem proposed and implemented, few if any have shown any significant success.
Yesterday, the charity Cancer Research UK released the statistics from a new analysis based around smoking in children aged 15 and under. The results are extremely worrying, to say the least. According to the figures, 157,000 children aged between eleven and 15 begin smoking each year in the UK. Just under one million children within the same age range have tried smoking at some stage. Cancer Research UK have urged that far more needs to be done in order to prevent young people from starting a smoking habit. Currently, a huge eight out of ten smokers started their habit before they reached the age of 19.
It seems obvious that the high numbers of young smokers are due to the pervasive idea that smoking is "cool". It is human nature to associate some measure of "cool" with activities that are forbidden or dangerous, and smoking is no exception. The health costs of smoking have been discussed at length for several decades, but clearly this has not acted as a deterrent in the way medical experts and health campaigners may have hoped. It may be that the focus should be moved away from focusing on the health aspect of smoking, which actually draws attention to the habit, and put more on reducing the appeal of smoking. While it may not be possible to eliminate the "cool" factor, if the habit of smoking were made less visible and less alluring, we could see an improvement in the figures discussed above.
Cancer Research UK advocate introducing plain packaging for tobacco products, in the hope that this will deter young people from starting to smoke. In a statement, Cancer Research UK's director of tobacco control, Jean King, pointed out that "[t]he tobacco industry spends a great deal of money on designing cigarettes and their packets so they seem glamorous, appealing, fashionable and attractive." She went on to say that packaging is "the most important marketing tool the tobacco industry has."
Late last year, the Australian government passed legislation to make plain packaging for tobacco products mandatory. Plain packaging will begin to be introduced in December of this year. No doubt other countries that have considered this drastic step, including the UK, will watch closely to see if the move is a successful one. However, despite praise from bodies like the World Health Organisation, the Australian government has already faced significant opposition from tobacco firms, with the world's largest tobacco company, Philip Morris International, launching legal action against them.
With such imposing opposition, it remains to be seen whether similar legislation could be passed in other countries across the world. Later this year, the UK's coalition government plans to hold a public consultation on the issue of plain packaging, which is a welcome development in the ongoing campaign to reduce the numbers not just of those who smoke, but also of those who take up the habit at a young age.