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We must not ease up on work to stub out smoking

Fifty under-16s a day starting smoking in Scotland - that is a chilling thought.

The figures are worrying but it is important not to jump to the wrong conclusions. They are an estimate and while they supposedly show the number of children "taking up" smoking, it may well be that a lot try cigarettes out of curiosity a few times and then stop.

Recent figures from the anti-smoking charity Ash show the proportion of English 11-to-15-year-olds who are regular smokers dropped from 11% in 1982 to 4% today, while the proportion of children who have tried a cigarette, even just once, continues to decline. So there has not been a sudden rise in habitual smoking among the young.

Still, every child who tries a cigarette is at risk of becoming addicted, which is a very serious concern. So why do they do it? Peer pressure, curiosity and rebellion are all factors.

There are fewer opportunities to glamorise cigarettes now that billboard, print and internet advertising has been banned so the only depictions children see are in real life, when it is often far from pretty, and on screen. TV series like Mad Men feature glamorous smokers, but such programmes are not widely watched by children. Occasionally celebrities are seen smoking and that is likely to influence young people, but the bigger problem is probably the cache associated with a forbidden habit. It is not hard to see why the increasingly taboo image of smoking would appeal to a rebellious child.

This is hard to combat, but governments can crack down on the ways tobacco companies continue to market their cigarettes to the young. Certain brands are sold in boxes designed to look like perfume packaging, which unsurprisingly appeals to teenage girls. The UK Government has to its shame dragged its feet over imposing plain packaging, recently announcing it would reconsider the evidence after backing off from the move in the summer. The Scottish Government, thankfully, has shown greater resolve, with plans to bring in a law in 2014-15. It is perfectly obvious this action is needed, but it should not stop there. Since the cigarette companies' next step will almost certainly be to glamorise the design of the cigarettes themselves, ministers should insist on a plain design for them as well.

A combination of tobacco marketing restrictions, public health education and limits on where people may smoke has helped drive down smoking rates, but with children still susceptible to this dangerous habit, now is not the time to ease up.

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