Britain's Doctors Are Moving to Ban Something That Kills 439 Americans Every Day


The news: Britain has a plan to totally eliminate one of the biggest public health problems of our time: cigarettes.

The British Medical Association (BMA) has voted "overwhelmingly" to ban the sale of cigarettes to those born after the year 2000, in much the same way that the BMA helped push through a ban on smoking in public in 2002 and smoking in cars carrying children in 2011. Tim Crocker-Buque, a specialist registrar in public health medicine who proposed the motion, told the Guardian that any such law could make the U.K. the first nation to totally eradicate smoking.

"Smoking is not a rational, informed choice of adulthood," Crocker-Buque said. "80% of smokers start as teenagers as a result of intense peer pressure. Smokers who start smoking at age 15 are three times as likely to die of smoking-related cancer as someone who starts in their mid-20s."

Dr. David Nutt, a British expert on drugs and alcohol, ranks tobacco as the sixth most harmful substance to society, more dangerous than amphetamines.

Could it work? Broadly speaking, drug prohibitions are usually passed during surges in popularity of specific substances. But cigarette smoking has been declining in popularity for decades after it became clear that the habit is incredibly dangerous. Some 100,000 people die annually in the U.K. from smoking, making it the single greatest cause of illness and premature death throughout the nation. And since health failure from smoking is gradual, many of those patients die from painful, expensive and chronic conditions like cancer, chronic pulmonary disease and heart disease.

From Action on Smoking and Health, here's the smoking statistics in the U.K.:

Most of today's smokers in the U.K. are also young adults aged 20-34: 

Meanwhile, in the United States: Compared to the U.K. (20%), fewer American adults on average (18.9%) smoke. From the CDC:

Yet, lung cancer still causes the most cancer deaths, with nine out of 10 deaths caused by smoking. In 2007, smoking killed 160,390 Americans, or 439 a day. 85% of those who developed lung cancer died within five years of diagnosis.

Should we ban smoking? There are clearly good reasons for such a ban. But it's uncertain that such a step will work. Stigmatizing smoking can do a lot of harm as well. For one, since smokers are disproportionately working class and smoking ads target the young and less-educated, there's a chance that such a measure would be interpreted as the moralizing imposition of an aloof elite.

That said, most smokers don't like their habit. In 2011, 68.9% of smokers reported wanting to quit, while 42.7% had attempted to do so in the last year. Britain's step could finally be the breakthrough to shake the world's continuing addiction to smoking, and young people will be the generation to benefit.