A new law banning display of cigarettes in supermarkets gets widespread endorsement from the public in the U.K.

Last week, a new law banning supermarkets from displaying packets of cigarettes came into force. Smaller newsagents and tobacconists do not have to conform to the new law for three years, to allow them time to make alterations to the display arrangements in their shops.

The ban is a dramatic and to most people (other than cigarette manufacturers) a welcome move in the continuing efforts to tackle the serious health risks from smoking. Those risks have been known for at least half a century. Cancer Research U.K., commenting on the highly addictive nature of nicotine in cigarettes, which makes giving up smoking difficult, notes that tobacco consumption is recognised as the U.K.'s single greatest cause of preventable illness and early death, with an estimated 104,000 people dying in 2009 from smoking-related diseases including cancers.

As someone who has never smoked, although brought up in a family where both my parents were heavy smokers, I greatly welcome the ban, which has come as a pleasant surprise. Even 10 years ago, I would have thought its introduction to be highly unlikely, partly because of the lobbying of the tobacco companies, partly because of the popularity of smoking.

The ban, and the increasingly widespread current recognition of the dangers of smoking, are reflections of a really significant change in social attitudes.

My own experience is a good indication of this change. Although, as I have stated, I have never been a smoker (and nor has my wife), for many years we always displayed ash trays in our house for use by visitors who did smoke. Furthermore, we always kept a supply of cigarettes that we could offer to such visitors. I do not think we were unusual in that, simply because, at the time, smoking was the norm, and we were, or felt that we were, unusual. We changed that practice many years ago, at a time when smokers were beginning to feel that their habit was anti-social, and something not to be done in other people's homes.

More recently, bans on smoking in shops, restaurants, buses, trains and other public places have become routine. Given these changes, the recent ban on display in supermarkets can be seen as a logical next step.

Go back to the 19th century and you can see smoking becoming an increasingly popular social ritual. After dinner, in upper class households, it became customary for a gentleman to put on a special smoking jacket, and move to a special smoking room, with fellow gentleman smokers. Smoking jackets continued to be popular well into the 20th century.

By the 1920s, women began to follow men in smoking. This began in a small way, but the Second World War brought about an increase in the number of women smokers, and in the number of cigarettes that they smoked. Their consumption of cigarettes increased until 1974, when it had reached seven cigarettes a day, according to Cancer Research U.K. — declining then until the early 1990s.

Changing perceptions

This, of course, reflects an increasing awareness of the health dangers of smoking. (My father, inveterate smoker that he was, never allowed himself to be influenced by such awareness. I vividly remember his reaction when his doctor gently advised him that it would be a good idea to cut down his smoking. “The man is a fool”, he declared.)

Looking back over half a century, it is easy to understand why smoking has increasingly become a habit that needs to be curtailed, for straightforward health reasons, and why that message has become ever more widely — but by no means universally — acceptable. It would be inconceivable today in most U.K. homes to have cigarettes on offer, as we once did (let alone encouraging male visitors to don smoking jackets and move to a smoking room).

It is certainly a far cry from the 17th century, when in Europe tobacco appeared on the market and was seen as one of the effective cures for toothache and fatigue, and as an anaesthetic and calming agent. It is worth noting the move from smoking as a “good thing” to a “bad thing”.

Not surprisingly, over the three centuries following the 17th, the tobacco industry grew in size and influence. Its significance has inevitably been a factor during the long period when the health dangers — and particularly the danger of cancer — from smoking have become ever more apparent.

The British government's decision now to ban tobacco displays in supermarkets is a clear indication of a major shift in the balance.

bill.kirkman@gmail.com