In his Irish News column today (21 January), Newton Emerson asked: 'Now that health minister Edwin Poots has banned cigarette vending machines, what is the next item on the nanny statelet agenda?'
Newton Emerson seems to have something of a libertarian agenda and opposes what he describes pejoratively as a 'nanny statelet'. However most folk support the concept of state intervention in the interest of public health and wellbeing.
For example, in 2004 the King's Fund, an independent think tank, conducted a survey of more than 1,000 people and found that most favoured policies that combated certain behaviours, such as eating a poor diet or public smoking.
We have heard the use of the term 'nanny state' in the past in relation to legislation on such things as the wearing of safety helmets by motor cyclists or the wearing of seat belts in motor cars. However both items of legislation are now recognised to have saved lives and reduced serious injuries in accidents. Are these not good outcomes and do they not justify the legislation?
It is too easy for libertarians to trot out their empty slogans about a 'nanny state'. No, if we are a caring an compassionate society that we do well to consider the wellbeing of others.
So then, Edwin Poots was right in relation to cigarette vending machines, which are a major source of supply for cigarettes for young people. A survey in 2010 showed that vending machines were the usual source of cigarettes for 14% of smokers aged between 11 and 16. Jayne Murray of the British Heart Foundation in Northern Ireland said, 'Vending machines don't ask for proof of age and are an easy route for children to tobacco.'
It is estimated that there are 1,800 cigarette vending machines in Northern Ireland and their removal will certainly help to reduce the number of children who smoke. That is to be welcomed.