TOM UTLEY: It’s the sacred duty of the young to wind up old fogeys like me

As regular readers will be all too aware, I’m a pathetically addicted chain-smoker with an abiding distaste for being bossed around by the nanny state.

It may therefore come as a surprise to some that I’m broadly in favour of this week’s proposal by a committee of MPs that the legal age for buying tobacco should be raised from 18 to 21.

It’s not that such a law would have made much difference to me, had it been in force when I first developed a taste for the evil weed back in 1968, when the minimum smoking age was still 16 (it didn’t go up to 18 until 2007).

I was 15 at the time, staying in County Durham for the summer holidays with a schoolfriend of the same age. 

Isn’t there just a chance that a few teenagers might be dissuaded from trying cigarettes if they were banned from buying them? And wouldn’t a few be better than none?

We were up in the loft above his parents’ garage when he produced an illicitly acquired packet of Three Castles cigarettes (remember them?) and offered me one. After a cough or two, I soon got the hang of it and began to look forward to the next one. I haven’t looked back since.

Nor do I suppose that the sort of law proposed by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Smoking and Health would have much of an impact on the overall numbers of young people taking up my filthy habit. That’s even if the police were to make a serious effort to enforce it, as they have so signally failed to do with the law against psychosis-inducing cannabis.

Hypocrisy

Let’s face it, if the young are not put off by the prohibitive price of cigarettes these days (£12.70 for a packet of 20 Marlboro Reds at my local newsagent, which is cheap by London standards), then it’s pretty unlikely that a minimum legal age for buying tobacco would make many under-21s think twice before giving smoking a try.

That said, however, I wouldn’t wish my tobacco addiction — ruinous to my health and my bank balance alike — on any young person for whom I felt the slightest affection. 

And isn’t there just a chance that a few teenagers might be dissuaded from trying cigarettes if they were banned from buying them? And wouldn’t a few be better than none?

Yes, I know, I’m a monstrous hypocrite. Indeed, a stern critic might say that the guiding principle behind all my advice to our four sons, ever since they were in short trousers, has been: ‘Do as I say, not as I do.’

But then, as I never tire of repeating, the great French moralist Cardinal Francois de La Rochefoucauld (1558-1645) had it plumb right when he said: ‘Hypocrisy is a homage that vice pays to virtue.’

In short, it is surely far better to urge others to behave well, while behaving badly oneself, than to say: ‘You should follow my bad example.’

They think anyone under the age of 21 is too immature to decide whether or not to buy a packet of cigarettes. But they are happy to entrust children five years younger with the most important decision anyone can make in a democracy

They think anyone under the age of 21 is too immature to decide whether or not to buy a packet of cigarettes. But they are happy to entrust children five years younger with the most important decision anyone can make in a democracy

So I reckon the committee is wise when it suggests that 18 is too young an age at which to start dabbling in a habit that could cast a shadow over the rest of a teenager’s life.

I would go further and say that my experience of studying my sons’ generation as they were growing up tells me that most 18-year-olds today (though not all of them) are incredibly immature and not to be trusted with any grown- up decision.

All of which brings me to a bit of a conundrum. I’m indebted to the excellent political website, Guido Fawkes, for pointing out that no fewer than nine of the MPs on this anti-smoking committee — that’s 60 per cent of them — have called for the voting age to be lowered to 16.

So let’s get this straight. They think anyone under the age of 21 is too immature to decide whether or not to buy a packet of cigarettes. But they are happy to entrust children five years younger with the most important decision anyone can make in a democracy.

Of course, it will come as no surprise that all nine of the committee members who back votes at 16 belong to Left-wing parties — whether Labour, the Lib Dems, the SNP or the Greens.

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