POLITICS

Published: 31/10/2002, Volume II2, No. 5829 Page 19

Being as closely in touch with happening young people as myself, I am sure you are aware of the youthful verb 'to diss', as in to show disrespect.

Contrary to the unhappening assertion of Tory MP Bob Spink, it is not to be confused with the middle-aged verb 'to dish'.

I will return to dissing.What caught my eye in a larger context this week was the law of unintended consequences, or the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Bill. It has at last become law five years after young Tony Blair was first propelled into No 10 with some financial help - later regretted - from Formula One's diminutive Bernie Ecclestone.

Aborted by the last election, reintroduced by a dogged Lib Dem peer, and picked up by the government, it finally got its Commons third reading a few days ago. I should say right away that the Conservatives did not vote against the third reading.

Indeed, new junior health spokesman Tim Loughton, a City fund manager, kept stressing what a disgusting habit smoking is. 'It is a killer and we want less of it, ' he told the colleagues with almost as much fervour as reformed Labour ex-smokers like Luton North's Kelvin Hopkins. He gave up 32 years ago and reckons he saved£75,000 (and his life).

So what are we left to discuss? Our old chum, Unintended Consequences. Everyone knows the issues surrounding tobacco advertising, the complications the ban will have for Formula One and other sports. I sense there is a consensus that a total ban on advertising is worth a try.

Some 120,000 Britons a year die of smoking-related illnesses, and estimates of the reduction in consumption of the weed which an ad ban might yield range from 0 per cent to 5 per cent. In their regulatory impact assessment, ministers have heroically predicted 2.5 per cent, which translates as 3,000 lives saved a year. Rough and ready calculations, but they are buttressed by two nasty facts: that tobacco advertising is aimed at young would-be customers (the Joe Camel cartoon figure is now almost as well known to teenies as Mickey Mouse) and at neighbourhoods inhabited by poor people, whose health is bad enough.Hey, advertising works for most products, why not the weed?

So what was Mr Loughton doing annoying Labour with a late amendment? He wanted health ministers to set up a 'reputable' body of experts charged with a rolling study of tobacco take-up rates among under-16s and 16-19-year-olds, two key 'catch 'em young' target groups. Its first annual report would be made in three years time.

We know that countries from Norway to New Zealand (where I am heading on sabbatical) report that an ad ban has cut adult consumption, but other research challenges that. The Tories rightly claim that the pre-1997 voluntary ad curbs here produced a sharp fall, since reversed.

All sides agree that wider educational measures are also needed. But Labour MPs were outraged that the Tories dared suggest there might be unintended consequences - greater smuggling and under-the-counter promotions at your local newsagents, for instance.

What if the£130m a year saved on the ad budget is used to cut prices, someone asked?

Raise cigarette taxes, said Mr Hopkins, whose ousted Tory predecessor, John Carlisle, went on to become the tobacco barons' spokesman. But that might lead to more smuggling, made easier, incidentally, by that Unintended Consequence ofMrs Thatcher, her Channel tunnel. This is where 'dissing' came in.What if a tobacco firm spent money dissing a rival product.

Would that fall foul of the law, asked Adrian Flook, the Taunton Tory who ousted Lib Dem Jackie Ballard, whose aggressively anti-hunting views didn't help much in rural Somerset.

If a diss had the effect of promoting the cigs of the firm doing the dissing, it would, replied Hazel Blears, the public health minister making her first foray into the minefield.Though a solicitor herself, she did not sound entirely certain.

I do not like it when the new Caring Tories are exposed for cynicism or shallow moralising, but I never see any harm in scepticism and take Mr Loughton at his word.

He lost (329 to 120).

But it was diehard Labour smoker Steve Pound who quoted Oscar Wilde to the effect that smoking - like war - will never die out while youngsters know It is sinful.