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Smoking ban plans threaten to undo good work of ID schemes

3 min read Partner content

Back in 1998, I thought there was a need for a UK photo ID that was available to everyone so they could prove their age or identity when accessing goods and services.

I persuaded retailers and manufacturers of age-restricted goods that they had a responsibility to make sure their products were sold only to adults and CitizenCard launched in 1999.

When it comes to the government’s proposed ‘generational’ smoking ban, I have deep concerns from both a retail and enforcement perspective. 

25 years of working to prevent underage sales tells me that everything retailers, manufacturers and enforcement agencies have achieved in supporting and enforcing the ‘No ID, No Sale!’ and ‘Challenge 21’ messaging could be put at risk by this plan to annually move the age goalposts.

A person’s 18th birthday is the threshold that distinguishes a child from an adult.  This applies not only to age-related goods and services but also to getting married, voting, fighting in the armed services or becoming an MP, councillor or magistrate.

There is now almost unanimous retailer support for asking people who appear to be under 21 (or 25) to prove they are 18 or older, ensuring tobacco, alcohol and other age-restricted goods don’t fall into the hands of children.

The success of PASS (Proof of Age Standards Scheme) cards (CitizenCard is the largest issuer) is underlined by the fact they’re endorsed by the likes of the Association of Convenience Stores, British Beer and Pub Association, UK Hospitality and the Wine and Spirits Trade Association. 18+ PASS cards, displaying Home Office SIA and police logos, can be used to prove age or identity and now they can also be used to vote in UK elections.

With the 18 age threshold having become an agreed position among retailers, the focus then moves to enforcement.  This doesn’t just apply to enforcement undertaken by local authorities or the police but increasingly the self-testing that retailers and the industry carry out to ensure the very highest standards.

There is no doubt that the proposed annual increase in the minimum tobacco purchase age will impede this work.

First, because a vast new awareness campaign will need to be undertaken so that retailers understand the law and this will need refreshing annually to advise the new minimum age.  What will happen, for example, if retailers mistakenly miscalculate an age from the date of birth?

Second, because the means by which potential customers prove their age will make life far harder for retailers – many of whom have already faced huge challenges to survive throughout coronavirus and already face a stressful job each day.

Forms of ID such as CitizenCard clearly demonstrate that the cardholder is ‘18+’. It proves they’re an adult.

If ‘18’ really isn’t enough, then go straight to ‘21’.  The precedent for a one-off has happened before, when the tobacco and lottery threshold rose from 16 to 18.  PASS can then plan to issue ‘21+’ cards.  But ‘18’ in 2024, ‘19’ in 2025 and ‘20’ in 2026 is simply impractical.

The government’s proposal for a generational smoking ban is well-intentioned – but it’s bad policy.  I urge them to reconsider.

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