Rishi Sunak's smoking ban: As a former teenage smoker, I say Prime Minister is right to help us kick cigarette habit– Laura Waddell

When she was a child, Laura Waddell tried to persuade her mother not to smoke cigarettes but later found herself succumbing to temptation

Onto the slim sides of my mother’s cigarettes, which I plucked disdainfully one by one from the packet left on the scrubbed kitchen worktop while she napped, I carved repeatedly with a biro the forbidding slogan “DO NOT SMOKE”. I wanted the message to get through, but perhaps, reflecting we were already at odds on the issue, I wanted to do something destructive to show my strength of feeling.

The sense of urgency – I’d just seen pictures of what these things did to lungs – overruled domestic legality. Wiry tobacco strands poked through tears in the letters, the Os jabbed through holes. I stuffed them all back into the packet angled and bent like the fingers of scarecrows. Later she would grumpily smoke the salvageable.

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Children of smokers often have stories like these. At the time of this one-girl stunt, I would have been around nine or ten; old enough to have consumed some public health messaging about the dangers of cigarettes, but too young to understand why anyone would want to smoke at all.

Smoking yourself to a tropical holiday

I was worried and frustrated by adults around me doing it. Although, I could definitely see the appeal of the coupons inside packs of Benson & Hedges, which could be saved up and redeemed against gifts from the Index catalogue, sibling and rival to the Argos ‘book of dreams’.

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One could, should one wish, sit in a smoky reverie totalling up their voucher points considering whether to spend them on an alarm clock or a tool set, or keep smoking to save up for the ultimate reward of a holiday, smoking into the tropical sunset instead of an artexed ceiling steadily turning yellow.

After an experiment in which cigarette smoke was passed through cotton wool, Rishi Sunak passes round the results to children at a school in Boston, Lincolnshire (Picture: Darren Staples/WPA pool/Getty Images)After an experiment in which cigarette smoke was passed through cotton wool, Rishi Sunak passes round the results to children at a school in Boston, Lincolnshire (Picture: Darren Staples/WPA pool/Getty Images)
After an experiment in which cigarette smoke was passed through cotton wool, Rishi Sunak passes round the results to children at a school in Boston, Lincolnshire (Picture: Darren Staples/WPA pool/Getty Images)

TV ads featuring cigarettes had been banned in the mid-60s but the brightly coloured incentive cards tucked inside packets that caught my eye and imagination as a kid in the 80s, didn’t disappear until just after the millennium with the bill to ban tobacco advertising finally taking them out.

From rebellion to routine

Later, I did what teenagers do: tested the ‘is smoking cool?’ hypothesis for myself. If being a taboo adult object wasn’t enough to grant the cigarette sex appeal by the time my body was midway through puberty, the rebellion and secrecy provided additional dark glamour and grunge. It would start around 12 or 13, with one cigarette stolen from someone’s parents on a sleepover; a novelty, managing ash from the burning tip as live and frightening a situation as inhaling at the other end.

But by 16, it was routine to see smoke from the ashtray rising with steam from the iron when I dropped in to see my best friend completing the chores that justified her board; with the radio on and sun coming through the blinds highlighting the vapour, it was a drowsy, cosy atmosphere. By 17, on Mondays to Fridays, I would walk up to the call centre where many of my friends did afterschool shifts taking catalogue orders. Inevitably I would bump into someone I knew outside, killing the couple of hours before work began.

The spot where we met was a bus stop to nowhere, a shelter from the drizzle marooned by douts. To them, we’d add our own joint ends, by that point laughing at the idea of someone’s younger sibling sharing one cigarette between five peers in their own formative moment walking home from school.

We smoked everywhere

The full weight of life’s stresses had yet to descend but we were getting an inkling of the landscape ahead, learning that inhaling smoke was something done, not merely for novelty or fun, but on breaks from work and to distract from monotony. In the workplace, nobody cared if we smoked, because after 16 it was legal. We were treated like adults and getting paid, at that time, a fiver an hour. The smoke break was ritualistic as much as it was routine.

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Smoking, among Scottish teenagers of the millennium era, was not at all unusual. We smoked in the school toilets, during fire alarm drills, between exams, outside on away days, before choir practice, behind the buses, and after maths. A creepy janitor who saw girls smoking on the perimeter of the grounds gestured to a spot the security camera wouldn’t pick up on, which was then passed around as a spot to avoid.

We smoked most furiously in the nightclub that let us in, no questions asked, as 16-year-olds on a Friday night, after we had pooled resources to buy a half bottle of Glens vodka to drink while ironing each others’ hair straight, a heavy Tefal in one hand and fluttering cigarette in the other. It was pointless.

No fan of Sunak

I somehow never developed a habit beyond the occasional and social, but smoking was so commonplace it was burned into the community fabric, stubbed into the bus seats. By the end of my teens, three years after I was legally allowed to purchase nicotine, I’d grown bored of the fad, and would develop alternative vices in time. Lucky. My mother happily and defiantly puffs on.

As it stands, some young people in this country will already leave their teenage years with a fully fledged nicotine addiction. There is no upside to this but to those who profit from the sale of tobacco. I’m no fan of Sunak but the PM’s move to ban the sale of cigarettes to anyone born after 2009 is a welcome disruption to deeply rooted British smoking culture, a public health policy firmly in line with everything we’ve known for decades about how ravaging cigarettes are on the body. Preventing new habits forming is the effective way to let cigarettes die out of society.



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