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Tuesday, July 04, 2006 

The naivety of age restriction.

As the fear of crime and disorder continues to rise, we often find ourselves looking for quick fixes. If you live in the UK, you'll have noticed that every major supermarket now has numerous signs up informing you that if you look under 21 and intend to buy age restricted products (such as cigarettes and alcohol) then you need some form of ID, otherwise you won't be served.

It's in with this sudden lust for control over teenagers who are apparently getting more hedonistic by the minute that the government has decided that the current legal age to purchase cigarettes has to be risen to either 17 or 18. This would bring it into line with the current age required to be allowed to purchase booze, pornography and the highest rated video/movie.

The first argument against such a raise will inevitably be the inconsistency which comes with this myriad of age restrictions. Currently a 16-year-old can consent to sexual intercourse, leave home, with parental consent marry and purchase cigarettes, as well as play the national lottery. The irony that 16-year-olds can fuck but can't watch others doing so has been raised in the past by the Lib Dems, only for them to be universally laughed at. They do however have something of a point. Surely if someone is mature enough to be allowed to consent and get married, then they can be allowed to decide to slowly poison themselves and/or also enjoy intoxicating liquor?

The second is that politicians are lying to themselves as much as the public is. While supermarkets put up their signs saying don't be offended when that is exactly the emotion that anyone asked for proof of age when they are 18-21 feels if they are questioned, it's well known that the average person who is underage certainly doesn't go to them to get their supply. The government freely admits that it is the off-licenses and corner shop newsagents that sell the majority of age restricted products without asking first. They're also far less likely to get caught in stings checking that shops are abiding by the law. The average newsagent or off-license, already in danger from the ever-rising likes of Tesco & co, relies on selling cheap and cheerful products to whoever walks in the door in order to make ends meet. Hence why the average teenager doesn't sip on the much maligned "alcopops" unless they're at a pub or club; they're downing cheap but strong cider and lager readily available from such shops.

The third is that even then age restrictions simply do not work. Raising the age at which you can buy fags is not going to stop the average teenager from starting smoking, much like it doesn't stop them from drinking. Even if they can't buy the products themselves, there's always someone older willing to do so for them, or if not, there's probably one person who looks considerably older than they actually are. Hence why the entire policy of age restriction is a facade.

The government should be honest both with us and with itself. If smoking is so bad for us, then why is it simply not made illegal? The obvious answer is that it contributes a nice slice of revenue to the Treasury, but it's more complicated than that. No one suggests that alcohol should be made illegal, yet we witness what happens as a result of it every weekend. Smoking is much more problematic. While you can infinitely raise the amount of tax on the sticks, all that will result in will increased smuggling in of cigarettes, or even more trips abroad to bring back much less heavily taxed foreign fags. In other words, like drug use, it will simply now never be eradicated, even though there are suggestions that countries such as Australia will eventually becoming completely smoke free.

What can be done instead is that we need to recognise the relevant harm caused by each product which is supposedly bad for us and act accordingly. Simply because many don't like smoke or smokers is no reason for us to persecute those who do. Raising the age limit would do nothing to stop young people from smoking, like the warnings on fag packets do nothing to stop current smokers from buying them. Cannabis, despite all the hype and moral outrage surrounding it, causes little harm compared to uncontrolled alcohol abuse, and those that grow it and move it around the globe are nothing like the savages that transport cocaine and heroin, damaging everyone at every turn of its production, even if they are the same people. There is also no evidence that all of it is gaining in strength (certain varieties are much more powerful and intensively farmed, often under hydroponics) or that it leads to harder drugs. A truly honest government would consider further decriminalisation of cannabis possession, even if it didn't fully legalise the production. On cigarettes, it would leave the current age restriction as it is, but gradually increase the taxation on them and directly and transparently use the money raised to fund programmes to help others to quit and not to start in the first place. Accountability should be the key.

It's open to debate whether increasing the taxation of alcohol would do anything to stop the carnage that comes from its use. Britain seems almost uniquely in Europe to hold the same mindset regarding drink that occurs in the States; working all week and then getting lashed at the weekend to forget about it. We're often told that the culture in Europe means that this simply doesn't occur there. Whether there's much truth in it or not is uncertain, but the way that they seem to be brought up to enjoy it socially from an early age appears to have some bearing. More equal societies may also be key. At the moment however, we seem to be perversely persecuting one part of society while seeing no evil in the other. This should change.

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The government just like to pick on unpopular groups and blame them for the problem with society. After all, isn't all crime perpetrated by under 16's?

On a more serious note though, when I hear people complain about yoofs hanging around shopping centres and parks, I think "where else are they supposed to go then?" (Needless to say, it's probably the same people complaining who say that kids spend too much time inside watching TV).

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