As regular readers will be all too aware, I’m a pathetically addicted chain-smoker with an abiding distaste for being bossed around by the nanny state.
It may therefore come as a surprise to some that I’m broadly in favour of this week’s proposal by a committee of MPs that the legal age for buying tobacco should be raised from 18 to 21.
It’s not that such a law would have made much difference to me, had it been in force when I first developed a taste for the evil weed back in 1968, when the minimum smoking age was still 16 (it didn’t go up to 18 until 2007).
I was 15 at the time, staying in County Durham for the summer holidays with a schoolfriend of the same age.
Isn’t there just a chance that a few teenagers might be dissuaded from trying cigarettes if they were banned from buying them? And wouldn’t a few be better than none?
We were up in the loft above his parents’ garage when he produced an illicitly acquired packet of Three Castles cigarettes (remember them?) and offered me one. After a cough or two, I soon got the hang of it and began to look forward to the next one. I haven’t looked back since.
Nor do I suppose that the sort of law proposed by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Smoking and Health would have much of an impact on the overall numbers of young people taking up my filthy habit. That’s even if the police were to make a serious effort to enforce it, as they have so signally failed to do with the law against psychosis-inducing cannabis.
Let’s face it, if the young are not put off by the prohibitive price of cigarettes these days (£12.70 for a packet of 20 Marlboro Reds at my local newsagent, which is cheap by London standards), then it’s pretty unlikely that a minimum legal age for buying tobacco would make many under-21s think twice before giving smoking a try.
That said, however, I wouldn’t wish my tobacco addiction — ruinous to my health and my bank balance alike — on any young person for whom I felt the slightest affection.
And isn’t there just a chance that a few teenagers might be dissuaded from trying cigarettes if they were banned from buying them? And wouldn’t a few be better than none?
Yes, I know, I’m a monstrous hypocrite. Indeed, a stern critic might say that the guiding principle behind all my advice to our four sons, ever since they were in short trousers, has been: ‘Do as I say, not as I do.’
But then, as I never tire of repeating, the great French moralist Cardinal Francois de La Rochefoucauld (1558-1645) had it plumb right when he said: ‘Hypocrisy is a homage that vice pays to virtue.’
In short, it is surely far better to urge others to behave well, while behaving badly oneself, than to say: ‘You should follow my bad example.’
They think anyone under the age of 21 is too immature to decide whether or not to buy a packet of cigarettes. But they are happy to entrust children five years younger with the most important decision anyone can make in a democracy
So I reckon the committee is wise when it suggests that 18 is too young an age at which to start dabbling in a habit that could cast a shadow over the rest of a teenager’s life.
I would go further and say that my experience of studying my sons’ generation as they were growing up tells me that most 18-year-olds today (though not all of them) are incredibly immature and not to be trusted with any grown- up decision.
All of which brings me to a bit of a conundrum. I’m indebted to the excellent political website, Guido Fawkes, for pointing out that no fewer than nine of the MPs on this anti-smoking committee — that’s 60 per cent of them — have called for the voting age to be lowered to 16.
So let’s get this straight. They think anyone under the age of 21 is too immature to decide whether or not to buy a packet of cigarettes. But they are happy to entrust children five years younger with the most important decision anyone can make in a democracy.
Of course, it will come as no surprise that all nine of the committee members who back votes at 16 belong to Left-wing parties — whether Labour, the Lib Dems, the SNP or the Greens.
Clearly, they calculate that children are more likely than adults to vote for their daft ideas. What’s more, they are almost certainly right, if we’re to judge by voting patterns at recent elections, broken down by age. The younger the voter, on the whole, the more likely he or she is to back the Left.
But is it unfair to ask for a little consistency? If people are too young at 20 to decide whether or not they should buy a packet of Silk Cut, then surely they must be too young at 16 to make decisions that will affect the future of millions of their fellow citizens? Until 1970, Britons had to wait for the vote until they were 21. Was that such a bad idea?
As for why younger voters tend to lean towards the Left, a part of the reason must be that they tend to be more naïve and idealistic, with less experience of real life than hardened old cynics of my age (I’m 67). The fact that most 18-year-olds don’t pay direct taxes must also have something to do with it. It’s far less painful, after all, to see the Government redistributing other people’s hard-earned money than our own.
But I suspect that another crucial factor may be at work: the irresistible urge, felt by the young through the ages, to annoy their parents.
Yes, I know, I’m a monstrous hypocrite. Indeed, a stern critic might say that the guiding principle behind all my advice to our four sons, ever since they were in short trousers, has been: ‘Do as I say, not as I do’
I’ve often suspected that it was at least partly for the sheer joy of winding his father up that our third son became a rabid Corbynista — a champion of every Marxist regime from which refugees flee in their droves, and a scourge of the capitalist countries where they seek refuge.
Something of that same urge to infuriate their elders and betters may well lie behind the current youthful fashion for tearing down statues, banishing portraits of the Queen from university common rooms and suggesting that words such as ‘mother’ should be erased from the dictionary and replaced by ‘person who gives birth’.
Like Lewis Carroll’s sneezing little boy in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: ‘They only do it to annoy/ Because they know it teases.’
What is so maddening is that the tactic seldom fails. Just as many of my parents’ generation were exasperated by the hippies and long-haired layabouts they spawned, so people like me rise to the bait when young idiots tell us that the Queen is a symbol of racist oppression, or that Chavez’s Venezuela was a model society.
The answer, I suppose, is that we grown-ups should try not to get angry — hard though this often is.
We should remind ourselves that young people have always said and done silly things, and take comfort from the thought that one day, most of them will grow up.
I often think we shouldn’t waste our breath on attacking these annoying young, but should reserve our anger instead for the grown-ups who pander to them.
I’m thinking of the fool at King’s College, London, who apologised for causing ‘harm’ to students by publishing a photograph of Prince Philip in a newsletter.
Or the Oxford dons who have said they will impose sanctions on students from Oriel until their college pulls down its statue of the colonialist Cecil Rhodes (an enlightened liberal, by the standards of his day).
Or the woke warriors who decreed that all members of the House of Lords — including the likes of the venerable 91-year-old Lady Boothroyd — should be forced to take a course in sexual harassment training.
Sadly, people like these will never grow up.
But let’s be tolerant of the foolish young. Indeed, it’s because I care about their welfare that I think they should be strongly discouraged from taking up smoking, at least until they are old enough to make a sensible choice. So, yes, let’s trying raising the legal age for buying tobacco to 21.
But while we’re about it, for the sake of consistency and our country’s future, shouldn’t we raise the voting age to the same?