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Within days the UK government is to announce details of a radical plan to cut smoking rates dramatically. A very radical plan. The basic idea involves increasing the legal age threshold for smokers by one year annually in perpetuity so that those who are 14 years old today will never be legally able to smoke, while those who are currently 15 will be able to go to the grave puffing away freely.
We know why it’s being introduced. It’s because, despite smoking rates falling substantially year on year, millions remain addicted and new smokers are still taking up the habit. Which has a dreadful impact on an already strained health service. What we don’t yet know is how it will be run. And this is the elephant in the room. How are they going to make this complex plan work? How will retailers distinguish between today’s 14 and 15 year olds when they are 30 and 31? Or 50 and 51? And I’ll let you into a secret from the age verification sector here: I don’t think the government knows how. This is the bit they still need to work out. And that is quite a challenge. No one anywhere in the world has ever attempted something so complex and constantly shifting as this in the age verification field on such a scale. The plan takes us into uncharted territory.
When Rishi Sunak first announced the idea last autumn, he made great play of the fact that a comparable scheme was already being introduced in New Zealand. But soon afterwards that country ended up dropping the idea before it was ever introduced. This wasn’t, I should point out, because they had faced their own crisis over how to manage it. The thing never got that far. Instead, it was dropped because a new government insisted that the taxation revenue losses it would involve weren’t viable. So it never even reached the point of road testing how enforcement would work. The result of this unforeseen Kiwi u-turn means that creating a world-first mechanism to effectively manage an age verification system in which the goalposts move every 12 months forever will fall to…Britain. The country where it takes three decades of argument to agree on whether to build or not to build a new airport runway or a train track.
We at TMT ID specialise in age verification and identity checks. We work for some of the biggest companies in the world in sectors like gaming and gambling where there are enormous fines if our clients get ages wrong. But equally, these companies are in competition for business and need the most frictionless possible onboarding and seamless transactions if they want to retain customers. Our skill is in balancing those two competing demands – to know with certainty that a customer is over 16, 18 or 21, whatever the age criterion is, but not making the checks so onerous that they mar their experience as a customer. And almost invariably this happens digitally – in microseconds. But our highly functional model doesn’t readily adapt to tobacco sales. You can’t buy a pack of cigarettes on Amazon or eBay. The overwhelming majority of these sales remain person-to-person transactions. And while staff at a corner store or a Tesco Extra may be well used to making an initial visual assessment of whether a customer is over or under 18 before asking for ID – are they really going to be able to make the same assessment between whether someone is 24 or 25, or 34 or 35, or whatever that year’s split is?
There is already a massive trade in illegal untaxed tobacco sales simply because hookie cigarettes are so much cheaper than the legal product. If buying tobacco legally becomes time-consuming or begins to routinely involve laborious hurdles like carrying a passport or driving licence, then the new rules will simply drive hundreds of thousands of smokers to this growing black market – and the government will miss out on a fortune in revenue. To avoid this, the consumer experience in tobacco shops under the new scheme needs to be as seamless as it is online. As soon as it comes in. They cannot afford to launch with a muddle and ignite a new criminal sector.
But there are nascent solutions to this looming problem out there. In the UK, the most obvious is Yoti. This app has partnered with the Post Office, Lloyds Bank and others and has had considerable take up. It’s even starting to be used in some corner stores. It allows users to verify their age by document upload or by facial scanning – and its tech in this latter sphere is surprisingly accurate. Similarly in the US, there’s the widely used ID.me which has similar functions. Instagram is moving into facial-scanning age verification too – as are others.
It will take the emergence of one or two of these tech-based solutions to be quickly, universally recognised by retailers, combined with mass adoption by customers, to get the UK to a place where the new moving goalposts system is remotely viable. And it will need efficient messaging to make this happen. Before any generational ban comes in there has to be a properly thought-through, coherent strategy on how enforcement will work and how age verification is going to function. It simply won’t be enough to dump the problem onto a retail sector which won’t be able to manage it. And a Trading Standards sector which won’t be able to police it.
The generational smoking ban is an imaginative idea. I admire the ambition behind it. And it’s completely well-intentioned – it couldn’t be motivated by a better goal. But it could be a gift to gangsters and a disaster for the government without a clear plan for how it will work in practice.
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