Sniffing out big brother

An edited version of this post was uploaded on The Times of Malta.

One of the consequences of JPO, JM and FD (too many acronyms? Sorry, can’t be bothered with the full shebang) pulling stunts like the ones we’ve had to endure in these past weeks is that they throw the whole country in tilt.

I’m not just being General Obvious. What I mean is that thanks to the likely lads, the country’s collective attention is being totally taken up by the big question: what the hell will they dream up next to make us look like total fools in front of the rest of Europe?

This preoccupation with their exploits is very understandable, of course. However, it does carry the side effect that we don’t really tend to notice much of what else is going on when it comes to more mundane stuff such as bye-laws, legal notices and such like.

Which means that one particular gem that was rolled out a couple of days ago went totally under the radar. The announcement coincided with the greatest Judas scene in parliament since Mintoff voted against Sant in 1998, so of course most bloggers had bigger fish to fry.

However, this morning I suddenly remembered all about it. Family minister Chris Said is proposing banning under-18s from buying gas lighters. This is the ministry’s less-than inspired response to recent revelations that about 14 per cent of Fifth Form students use inhalants, which include lighter fluid, paint thinner, nail polish and glue (read report on

Judging by what was said by the same minister and by Foundation for Social Welfare Services CEO Sina Bugeja while they were promoting this “initiative” on the 8 o’clock news, this is only the first step in the great war against drugs. Nail polish, glue and paint thinner are likely to meet the same fate.

I do have the greatest respect for all the work that has been carried out by people like Ms Bugeja. But really, there is such a thing as allowing yourself to get carried away. I’m afraid that this new proposal carries more than a touch of over-zealousness.

Creating a taboo around mundane items whose primary purpose is perfectly innocent can only backfire. I wonder how many under-18s who were never bothered with inhaling anything worse than the smell of their mother’s cooking suddenly figured that they might as well give it a go before getting their hands on a lighter becomes as difficult an enterprise as locating a sane politician.

I can also just picture the scene when nail polish gets added to the list. Cue droves of desperate thirteen-year-olds forced to forego the trendy talon look. Not to mention the (understandable) irritation of arts students forced to get mummy/daddy to run to the shops every time they need some glue or paint thinner.

There are many common, everyday items that can be easily misused by youngsters and by adults alike. Banning them is certainly not the answer. Maybe it has escaped Ms Bugeja’s and Minister Said’s notice, but those who are that way inclined can get a hell of a trip from good, old petrol. Very cheap thrills for the price of a fiver and a small jerrycan, even allowing for the increase in the price of fuel. Would Ms Bugeja and Minister Said like to have the automatic fuel dispensers padlocked after hours, to make sure no errant teen falls off the straight and narrow path?

Would they also, perhaps, like to institute a curfew or stop under-18s from going out unaccompanied while they’re about it? After all, the great outdoors can offer way more potential for trouble than any old gas lighter. The point I’m trying to make here is that while taking reasonable steps to ensure the well-being of Maltese teens is highly laudable, you can never overestimate the importance of “reasonable”.

In my book, if they’re old enough to have kids and get married then they’re certainly old enough to buy something as mundane as a lighter. Education tends to be more effective than outright bans, which only serve to put people’s backs up.

In the UK they did try banning minors from buying gas lighter refills (note “refills”, as opposed to the lighters themselves). The move made no impact whatsoever on inhalant abuse statistics.

Which just goes to show that overdoing the Big Brother act can do more harm than good.