How this vital bill can stop a new generation going up in smoke

LATER this week, MSPs will vote on measures in the Tobacco and Primary Medical Services Bill. If it is successful it will end promotional retail displays of tobacco branding in shops, introduce stricter sanctions for those who sell to under-18s, criminalise the purchase of tobacco for under-age use, and end the sale of cigarettes through self-service vending machines.

As someone who has spent his working life witnessing the devastating effects of smoking through heart disease, I believe it is vital that Scotland does all it can to prevent young people from starting to smoke.

Smoking causes various diseases and forms of ill-health but there is one uniting factor: the distress caused to families as they watch their loved one cope with not just their ill health, but also the consequent treatment and management of their illness.

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The bill that reaches its final stage on Wednesday can make a real difference in reducing the prevalence of smoking among our young people both in the short and longer term.

Putting tobacco out of sight at the point of sale is a crucial step. Tobacco, unlike the other products you can readily buy in supermarkets and corner shops, will kill half its regular long-term consumers when it is being used as the manufacturers intend.

There is no safe level of use and this is a uniquely addictive and lethal product. It is not a product that should continue to have pride of place in our shops.

The measures in the bill are important moves towards keeping cigarettes and tobacco out of the hands of children – vital provisions if we are to reduce smoking rates and prevent children experimenting with, and becoming addicted to, a product that kills.

Around 15,000 young people between 13 and 24 take up smoking in Scotland every year. Of particular concern to me is the damage done to younger smokers. A child who starts smoking before the age of 14 is five times more likely to die of lung cancer than someone who starts smoking at age 24 or older, and 15 times more likely to die of lung cancer than someone who never smokes.

Smoking is estimated to cost the NHS in Scotland an annual 409 million every year and the wider Scottish economy 837 million every year.

Preventing future generations from starting to smoke will reduce this burden as well as the human costs of smoking to society as a whole. As many as 13,500 people die every year and thousands of others cope with smoking-related diseases.

There is no quick fix to reducing smoking prevalence; some measures will take a generation to make a difference. But by being forward thinking enough to take those necessary steps, we will see dividends in the future.

Figures released late last year by the Chief Medical Officer showed that tobacco is now a major cause of ill health among women in Scotland. The increased rates of smoking among women 30 and 40 years ago now mean female lung cancer rates are rising dramatically and are set to reach a peak of 10,000 in the second half of this decade – double that of 30 years ago.

Stark statistics like this show there is a constant need to make progress in tobacco control and further reduce smoking rates in Scotland.

We must turn the tide if Scotland is to become a healthier nation, a nation that acts to stop preventable deaths and protect the next generation from becoming addicted to this lethal substance.

The tobacco bill's proposals have been strongly backed by the Scottish Parliament's health and sport committee. If the whole parliament now agrees, it will start this new decade very positively for the health of our nation.

• Professor Keith Fox is Duke of Edinburgh Professor of Cardiology at Edinburgh University.