There are many disturbing facts and accounts in the Feeding Britain report on foodbanks and the financial problems of Britain’ s poorest. Admirably balanced and non partisan, the thoughtful, considered response it’ s had from most politicians is well deserved.
Still, there’ s one aspect of the report that seems a little under explored. Here’ s a quote from the document
“ The other force at work is the addictions that many individuals and families have, but which particularly sharply affects the budgeting of low income families. We refer here to the size of income in some families going on drugs, tobacco and gambling.”
“ … tackling these serious addictions is as crucial for the overall health of our society as it is in restoring a sense of dignity and control individuals have over their own lives and their tackling of these serious addictions is as crucial for the overall health of our society as it is in restoring a sense of dignity and control individuals have over their own lives and their own budgets. We make recommendations here on how food can be used as a way of kick starting a recovery process for individuals who find themselves in such desperate situations.”
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In other words, let’ s make sure poor people are eating properly, then we can help them smoke and drink and gamble less.
On that basis, the report then largely ignores the question of spending on booze and fags and gambling. While it discusses the share of household income being spent on food and non alcoholic drinks, utilities and the rest, it has almost nothing else to say about how much is spent on drink and tobacco.
I can understand why. There are too many people who want to focus on the issue in an attempt to argue or just imply that poor people are poor because they chose to be, that they go to food banks because they spend money on the “ wrong” things instead of food. My best guess is that the authors didn’ t want to get into that debate, so they ignored the question.
To be clear, I don’ t want to make any such argument, or imply any such thing. I suspect some people will glance at the headline of this piece and conclude “ Oh look, a heartless Telegraph toff sneering at poor people for smoking.” But that is not what I’ m about here. I offer no judgement on poor people who smoke if I was in the dire straits described in the Feeding Britain report, I suspect I’ d want the comfort of a cigarette, or any other earthly pleasure I could get my hands on. And for all that non smokers like me can be prone to look down on weak willed smokers, we should acknowledge that this is a monstrously addictive drug, and remember there but for the grace of God smoke I.
Still, facts are facts whether or not we find them convenient or comfortable. And the fact is that some poor people do spend some of their money on things like tobacco and alcohol. And obviously, a pound spent on cigarettes cannot be spent on food. For reference, the average packet of 20 cigarettes now costs 8.46. So surely a fully rounded look at the issues of food and poverty should include some analysis of spending on such things, shouldn’t it?
Let’ s start with the basics.
Because the price of goods like alcohol and tobacco is, broadly speaking, fixed, consumption of those goods is regressive a poor person who buys 20 fags a day will spend a much greater share of their income than a rich one. The IFS has estimated that people in the lowest income group spend roughly twice as much of their income on tobacco and alcohol than those in the richest.
There’ s also some evidence that poorer people are more likely to do things like smoke, and when they do, to smoke more than richer people
I’ m using 2013 ONS household expenditure data here, and using occupational group as a proxy for income not perfect, but the best I can find today.
The same data show that unemployed people smoke much more than those with jobs
Then there’ s drink. Poor people drink less often, as it happens
Smoking in particular is worth focussing on here, not least because the Feeding Britain report offers this thought
“ A family earning 21,000 a year, for example, where both parents smoke 20 cigarettes a day will spend a quarter of their income on tobacco. Even if people buy illicit tobacco they will still spend 15% of their total income on tobacco. Budgeting support is terribly important, but budgetary support alone is often not enough to equip families to kick their addictive habits when addiction is being fed and defended by some very powerful lobbies.”
Read that again. Some poor families may be spending a quarter of their income on tobacco. A quarter.
That figure is actually even higher than an estimate produced last year by the Institute for Economic Affairs last year, which said that the average smoker from the poorest fifth of households spends between 18 and 22 per cent of their disposable income on cigarettes.
(The IEA also noted that tax on these cigarettes consumes 15 to 17 per cent of those families’ incomes. A cynic would note that central government therefore has a financial disincentive to reduce tobacco consumption.)
Surely any serious attempt to address food poverty should have more to say about this issue than vague accusations about “ powerful lobbies” exploiting the poor? Surely any move to ensure that poor people can and do spend more money on good food has to include an attempt to reduce the amount they spend on tobacco? Surely it’ s not good enough to say that we have to sort out the food problem before we can sort out the tobacco problem? Because the basic economic fact is that tobacco is part of the food problem.
Again, just to repeat the caveat, I don’ t raise this to criticise or denigrate those on low incomes who spend money on tobacco. I raise it because any attempt to discuss the problems of those people that doesn’ t address their full spending patterns is incomplete and likely to fail.
If you care about poor people and want them to eat better, get them to spend less on smoking. Does that mean banning cigarettes? Taxing them even more? Or actually cutting the tax to make them cheaper? Or doing much, much more to help and encourage them to quit? There may well be an argument to be made for all of those options, and others besides. Sadly though, that’s not part of the foodbank debate today.
Minors ‘can easily buy e-cigarettes via the internet’ medical news today
In a study investigating compliance with North Carolina’s electronic cigarette age verification law, researchers have found that minors are easily able to circumvent legislation and buy electronic cigarettes from retailers via the Internet.
The e cigarette industry is growing rapidly. Experts predict it could be worth $10 billion a year within the next 2 years.
“Even in the face of state laws like North Carolina’s requiring age verification, most vendors continue to fail to even attempt to verify age in accordance with the law, underscoring the need for careful enforcement,” write the authors of the study, published in JAMA Pediatrics.
Sales of e cigarettes have been constantly on the rise since they first entered the US market in 2007. By 2013, it had become a $2 billion a year industry and analysts predict sales could reach $10 billion a year by 2017.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), rates of e cigarette use among teenagers are also increasing rapidly, doubling from 2011 to 2012. The CDC report that in 2013, more than a quarter of a million high school students had never smoked conventional cigarettes but had used e cigarettes.
E cigarettes are frequently portrayed as a safer alternative to smoking conventional cigarettes, although groups such as the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Mayo Clinic are wary of their nicotine content and associations with potentially carcinogenic substances.
At present, 41 states prohibit the sale of e cigarettes to minors, including North Carolina. According to the study authors, however, research has yet to be conducted to examine age verification among Internet retailers that sell e cigarettes.
For this study, Rebecca S. Williams of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and colleagues set out to assess how frequently online vendors complied with North Carolina’s age verification law.
‘E cigarette sellers online operate in a regulatory vacuum’
The authors recruited 11 nonsmoking minors aged 14 17 to make e cigarette purchases online with a credit card while under supervision. The minors made their purchase attempts from computers at the project’s offices.
A total of 98 Internet e cigarette vendors were targeted by the study. The minors successfully ordered e cigarettes from 75 of these vendors and of the unsuccessful orders, only five failed due to age verification. According to the authors, this meant that 93.7% of the e cigarette vendors investigated failed to correctly verify their customers’ ages.
In addition to this finding, the e cigarette packages were delivered by shipping companies that all failed to verify the ages of the purchasers upon delivery, with 95% of orders simply left at the door. All of the shipping companies concerned do not ship cigarettes to consumers, according to company policy and federal regulation.
As a result of these findings, the authors state that none of the online e cigarette vendors complied with North Carolina’s e cigarette age verification law.
“In the absence of federal regulation, youth e cigarette use has increased and e cigarette sellers online operate in a regulatory vacuum, using few, if any, efforts to prevent sales to minors,” they write.
The findings of this study will be of concern to those who are worried about the influence of e cigarettes. The CDC also report that among nonsmoking youth who have ever used e cigarettes, 43.9% say they “have intentions” to smoke conventional cigarettes, compared with 21.5% who have never used an e cigarette.
“Federal law should require and enforce rigorous age verification for all e cigarette sales as with the federal PACT (Prevent All Cigarette Trafficking) Act’s requirements for age verification in Internet cigarette sales,” conclude the authors.
Recently, Medical News Today reported on a study suggesting that the introduction of new regulations that could modify the content of cigarettes is unlikely to significantly affect the current demand for illicit tobacco.
Written by James McIntosh