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Column: Bloomberg's approach to smoking is working in New York – it could here too

New York’s Mayor Bloomberg intends raising the legal smoking age from 18 to 21 – and he’s right. This is the generation which can be protected from Big Tobacco, writes Kathleen O’Meara.

Kathleen O'Meara

HEARING THE NEWS report that New York’s Mayor Bloomberg intends raising the legal smoking age from 18 to 21, I couldn’t help noting that he was described as “an anti-smoking crusader”. It’s a suitable moniker. The Mayor’s zeal when it comes to the health of the citizens of New York is unmatched stateside.

And he is getting results. Since Bloomberg was first elected Mayor in 2002, the smoking rate in New York has dropped from 22 per cent to 14 per cent, the biggest decline in the United States and lower than many European states, including our own. That’s impressive. It’s due to a range of initiatives, like mass media campaigns for instance, and health warnings on packs.

In reality what it means is that fewer people are smoking, and fewer young people are starting to smoke. This means fewer deaths from smoking. More people are alive in New York today because of what Mayor Bloomberg is doing. There is less cancer and less heart disease.

Bloomberg believes, as we do, that it is possible to aim for a generation that doesn’t smoke. We share that ambition, as does the Irish Government, which recently published a strategy entitled “Tobacco Free Ireland”. There’s a range of tools that have been proven to work in other countries that have been used to discourage children from smoking – whether it’s by raising the legal smoking age to 21 or by introducing plain packaging which will rob the industry of its most powerful tool – branding.

“Prohibitionist”

It’s interesting to notice the pushback against the campaigning zeal of Mayor Bloomberg, that he is “prohibitionist”, recalling an era in the United States when alcohol was prohibited and associating his campaign with state repression and killing off choice. This is the language used by the lobbyists funded by Big Tobacco.

We are beginning to hear the same language used on this side of the Atlantic too, especially from groups like the Institute of Economic Affairs, a think-tank reportedly funded by the tobacco industry which recently held a meeting in Dublin as part of a massively-funded campaign which it is rolling out in an attempt to prevent the Irish Government introducing plain or standardised cigarette packaging.

In no way are the efforts used to reduce the number of people who smoke ‘prohibitionist’. The fact is that these strategies are working. Fewer people in Ireland are smoking than ever before (22 per cent of people smoked in 2012 compared to 27 per cent of people in 2009) and they’re not switching to illegal cigarettes (the Revenue Commissioners reported in its 2012 Annual Report that in just one year, there has been a drop from 15 per cent to 13 per cent in the amount of smuggled tobacco being consumed). But the tobacco industry and its front groups are trying desperately to claim that strategies that are protecting children and young people from the tactics of the tobacco industry are prohibitionist.

People are giving up

What they are actually concerned about is that the smoking rate is falling because people are giving up. There is no evidence to show that people are switching to black market cigarettes, despite the false figures put out by the tobacco industry.

In Ireland, the rate of smoking among children, while dropping, is still high by European standards and 78 per cent of smokers say they started before they are 18. Children need to be protected from the marketing tactics of the tobacco industry and we in the Irish Cancer Society believe that the Government’s plan to remove cigarette branding, colour and logos from packs will rob the industry of a powerful marketing tool and in the process protect children.

If you haven’t already, have a look at this video of children and their reaction to cigarette packaging, both branded and not.

Uploaded by Irish Cancer Society

This is the generation which can be protected from Big Tobacco. This could be the generation free from smoking.

Kathleen O’Meara is Head of Advocacy and Communications at the Irish Cancer Society. More information about cancer and the Irish Cancer Society’s campaigns is available at www.cancer.ie.

Read: New York bans sale of cigarettes to under 21s

Watch: ‘Why do they make smokes anyway?’: Tallaght schoolchildren have their say on new cigarette packaging

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