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Today 6 April 2012 marks the start of a legal ban in UK against the display of tobacco products in retail outlets with a floor area larger than 280 square metres (3014 sq ft). Smaller convenience stores and newsagents have until April 2015 to figure out how to make cigarettes, cigars and pipe tobacco vanish out of sight below the counter.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-17626133

The change in law has been championed by official government health spokespersons and also lobby groups like ASH (action on smoking and health) who claim that banning retail displays of cigarettes will help prevent children from taking up smoking, and also encourage existing smokers to abandon the habit. Advocates of such bans justify them in part by insisting that most smokers secretly wish to give up anyway.

As a former smoker who gave up smoking 18 months ago after 37 years of smoking I am not so sure that all of the assumptions in play here are valid. People who do not smoke generally have little interest in displays of tobacco products in my opinion. There are persuasive arguments to suggest that children who take up smoking tend to be those who come from families where parents or older siblings already smoke. This was the case in my own family where my father who was a biological scientist regularly smoked 40 untipped "Senior Service' high tar cigarettes each day for the larger part of his life (he switched to hand-roll tobacco in his later days). Rather than banning retail displays of tobacco, perhaps the anti-smoking lobby should be busy framing laws that ban people from having parents ?

Researchers who back the ban, claim that scientific studies involving eye-tracking technologies support the thesis that colourful packaging encourages people to smoke. Critics who regard such studies as little better than 'glorified focus groups' suggest that all it does is imply that the human eye is attracted by bright colours in some circumstances. The claim that the displays of tobacco products make it harder to give up smoking is also untrue in my own experience. I worried about it myself when I first gave up smoking but soon found that I rather enjoyed looking at the colourful displays with their ever spiralling prices to remind me how much money I was saving by not smoking. Far from being tempted back into smoking, I became instead a hobbyist of the sort sometimes known as a 'philumenist' (collector of matchboxes) or a 'cartophilist' (a collector of cigarette cards). In short I soon became a knowledgeable and systematic collector of digital images of cigarette packaging and artwork. For anyone interested in this hobby then
http://www.cigarettespedia.com/index.php/Main_Page
is a fascinating resource. Needless to say, ASH and other anti-smoking groups do not intend to let me indulge such a hobby for much longer. They are busy running a campaign to promote 'Mandatory Plain Packaging' of all tobacco products (which are destined to be hidden under the counter anyway), and in the case of SW England where I live, they are busy using public money to fund expensive advertising displays to lobby their cause, in advance of a supposedly objective public consultancy which is also being paid for out of taxpayers money.


The claim that most smokers secretly long to give up, and the assumption that they simply need to be 'nudged' in order to do so is highly simplistic and psychologically naive in my view. Smokers don't enjoy discussing their habit at any length with third parties who are non-smokers . Such discussions arouse moments of stress and anxiety, and smokers deal with that by departing outside to have another smoke, which means that such conversations are destined to be rather short lived at the best of times. Faced with questionnaires, smokers tend to give whatever answer they think the questioner wants to hear, in order to keep the social transaction as brief as possible.

There is an assumption that by confronting smokers with gruesome images of diseased lungs, teeth and cadavers, that they can be quickly intimidated into abandoning smoking. Once again this is untrue in my own personal experience. Six years before I gave up smoking, my father in law developed lung cancer at the age of 82. For nearly 14 months I used to visit him on a weekly basis with my wife, and I witnessed the entire process of this fatal disease at first hand, and on a day by day basis at the end. Did it make me stop smoking ? Nope is the short answer. The difficulty of explaining the psychology of this reaction encapsulates the difficulty of trying to explain why people smoke in the first place, and why they don't readily attempt to give up when logic suggests they should.

Smokers are solipsists. They don't really regard anything as real unless it is happening to them in person. They filter and exclude troubling and disturbing thoughts or images with great success and are almost impervious to any sort of warning or argument right up until the point where the charmed circle of their own health is breached. I fear that for many habitual smokers, nothing short of a major personal health scare will make them give up smoking. In my own case it was an attack of bibasilar pneumonia that put me in hospital and off work for five weeks that finally did the trick.

As Sir Walter Raleigh said just before he was beheaded in 1618, ""This is a sharp Medicine, but it is a Physician for all diseases and miseries."

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