David Nuttall is Member of Parliament for Bury North. Follow David on Twitter.
Even despite the valiant efforts of Great Britain’s Olympians, good news is in short supply these days, so when it does come along we should do everything in our power to nurture it and help it grow. This is particularly true when the news in question involves weaning future generations off smoking, alcohol and drug abuse.
A recent publication by the Health and Social Care Information Centre on smoking, alcohol and drug use among young people in England revealed that in 2011, 25 per cent of children said they had smoked at some time, compared to a shocking 53 per cent in 1982.
We now have the lowest percentage of children saying they have smoked since these annual reports were first published. The number of 15 year olds regularly smoking was 11 per cent which is lower than the target announced in the Government’s 2011 Tobacco Control Plan.
Concerning alcohol, more than half (55 per cent) of the children surveyed last year had never tried alcohol compared to just over a third (39 per cent) in 2003. A similar trend was found in relation to drugs, with 17 per cent of children admitting to taking drugs compared with 29 per cent in 2001.
These figures remain too high, but we are heading in the right direction and it is important that we understand and learn from this success. Parental advice and the Government’s education campaigns in schools seem to be working – but we need to redouble our work in this area. As a report by the Institute of Education at London University made clear earlier this year, developing the right school policies and education programmes to break peer pressure is essential.
Equally important is the need to equip our law enforcement agencies with the powers and resources they need to ensure children do not come into contact with the people willing to sell them cigarettes, alcohol and drugs.
The report by the Health and Social Care Information Centre revealed the number of children being offered drugs has fallen from 42 per cent in 2001 to 29 per cent last year, but this success should not make us complacent. The trade in cigarettes and alcohol sold either by unscrupulous traders or by criminal gangs that routinely target children, is a serious problem in many parts of the country.
Law enforcement agencies need the resources to tackle this problem, but they also need the law to be on their side. Parliamentarians could make a start by banning proxy purchase, the purchase of alcohol and tobacco by adults with the intention of handing the products over to children. Despite being made illegal in Scotland, this has yet to be made a criminal offence in England and Wales.
We must also be careful that any well-intentioned Government action in these areas does not have unintended consequences. I share the concerns of law enforcement agencies that the plain packaging for tobacco or alcohol products would make it easier for criminals to sell their toxic wares to children.
I also share the view expressed by the Institute of Education that we need to adopt a sensitive approach to regulation, when it could inadvertently heighten the kudos of smoking as an act of rebellion against adult regulation.
The results from the Health and Social Care Information Centre’s report give us hope that we are making progress. We certainly need to do more, but we also need to think very carefully before introducing untested measures that could snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in the fight for the health of future generations.