Claire Hailwood supports the government’s proposal to raise the age when you can legally buy cigarettes but believes more should be done for those addicted.
I was 13 when I tried a cigarette for the first time. I was offered one by a friend and I distinctly remember enjoying how rebellious an act it felt. And because nicotine is addictive and I enjoyed the temporary feeling of belonging in the group, it was the start of an addiction.
When I first started smoking you could buy cigarettes at 16 and I soon learned where I could buy them. I was fortunate to be tall and could just about pass for a 16-year-old, particularly to less scrupulous shop owners.
Had the age limit been 18 and the ‘challenge 25’ scheme been in place it would have been a different story as I would have had to rely on others. Where that wasn’t possible, perhaps I would have got more ‘creative’ about where and how I got hold of them.
Although smoking rates are in decline, there are still seven million smokers across the UK. A recent report (commissioned by government ministers) suggests that the age limit is expected to rise to 21, with Javed Khan (who’s written it) proposing that the age of sale for cigarettes should rise by one year every year, so that the children of today will never be able to buy tobacco.
As someone raising children, my natural instinct is to want it to be as hard as possible for my children to get hold of any substances that could be harmful to them and the age change to 21 would do that. If the recommendations from the report were implemented, that would go further again.
I also recognise that adolescence is a time where risk taking behaviour, kicking against social norms and ‘rebelling’ is part of the journey. Would it be the ‘worst’ thing if one of my children became a smoker? Do I even have the right to tell them not to, when it’s a part of my story, and to a certain extent, I get it?
But as someone who then had to quit and wasted lots of my adolescence trying to sneak out to smoke, and too much of my allowance on mints to freshen my breath I don’t want that for any of the children I love and am raising.
Perhaps more seriously are the potential long term, life limiting health implications of addiction. For the young people we’ve cared for who have come into our family with an addiction, I’ve seen how challenging it can be.
There are those who say that raising the age limit is simply another example of a nanny state removing our right to choose. But should that ‘right to choose’ extend to teenagers (and young adults) whose brains haven’t finished developing? Do we have a responsibility to protect them in a different way?
There are compelling arguments from all sides. It will take a brave government to roll out such a policy for a myriad of reasons, not least because such long term, bold plans may undermine their short-term electoral success.
The Bible says that our bodies are a temple of the Holy Spirit. A place where God dwells. It also tells us that where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. If our bodies are a place where God dwells then within us is the potential to live in that freedom.
More than that, if we are a place where God dwells then we have the potential (and I would suggest, call) to be a living demonstration of who God is and how He calls us to live in a world that is bound by so many things. We are called to be in but not of the world.
I remember thinking that God was disgusted with me because I smoked. I think some of that was judgement I felt from some Christians.
He wasn’t. Isn’t.
The reason God calls us to treat our bodies as a temple for His Holy Spirit is not because He’s a killjoy and wants to remove all fun, but because He loves us and wants what’s best for us.
Does that mean the government should step in and put legislation in place?
For me, I’m pleased that they are and hope they continue in a brave direction. But only if alongside that, they also invest heavily in supporting people struggling with addiction in the process of quitting. And even more importantly than that, if there is also investment in mental health services and other supportive spaces that can help people figure out why they smoke and addressing some of those.
Smoking is of course just one such coping mechanism. It may not be your battle. Perhaps you’re more likely to reach for a chocolate bar (or three) when you’re down or drink too much alcohol because you’re out with friends. Or maybe you know what it is to be drawn in to viewing inappropriate content on a screen when ‘real’ life has felt challenging? Smoking isn’t the only challenge our young people, or indeed adults face.
Claire Hailwood is a former youth worker and is involved with her husband at Freedom Church in Worcester