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SHOPPERS GET THE POINT

12-09-2006

Lynne Hawthorne makes a few cutting remarks about a strange free gift she was offered while shopping.

I was wandering through a department store in my local city centre a few Saturdays ago, trying to avoid the over-zealous and over-made-up young women so intent on selling me a vision of myself I did not particularly desire, when I experienced one of Sir Terry Wogan's “Is it me?” moments. Dear Reader, perhaps you can help me out here…..

Over the tannoy came the announcement that in four minutes time (a new use for the 4 minute warning?!) in the Household Section of the Basement Floor there would be a “fabulous giveaway, a free gift for every customer in store today.” So far, so good. “No purchase necessary." Even better. "Recipients must be over 21.” Now I was getting excited - was this respectable store offering something risqué or louche? My mind had veered off from the earnest description of the foundation mousse being greasily applied to my visage to the avid speculation as to the nature of this freebie bonanza, when my jaw dropped open and I had to ask the puzzled sales assistant if I'd heard right.

Worryingly, I had. Today's freebie was a surgical steel kitchen paring knife. Satisfyingly, the sales girl was as appalled as me, so it wasn't an old fogey-type over-reaction. OK, in a more innocent time, this would have been seen as a generous offer to entice shoppers into the Food Hall, which they might not ordinarily visit, but today's climate is different: the dramatic rise in violent crime, mostly fuelled by alcohol or drug misuse, is a very real element of daily life.

Of the 820 homicides in 2004/2005, 236 (29%) of them were killings by a sharp instrument and knives were used in 6% of all violent crime. Stabbing is currently the most common method of killing. (Statistics courtesy of the Home Office for England & Wales, 2004/05)

Concern about the rise in this form of crime was so high that the Police launched a 5-week amnesty, which ended in June of this year, and in May, 2005, the British Medical Journal launched a call for a ban on the sale of long kitchen knives. (To read more, see: www.bmijournals.com) The BMJ quoted government statistics showing that 24% of 16 year old boys admitted carrying knives or other weapons and 19% admitted attacking someone with intent to harm.

The Journal also questioned chefs regarding the culinary reasons for using the long pointed dagger-type knife with pointed tip and found none: a blade of less than 5cm would suffice. Yet, with the dagger-type, once the resistance to clothing has been overcome, little extra force is required to penetrate vital organs, and these objects are readily to hand in most kitchens up and down the country.

You could argue that this store was being responsible by only allowing these knives to be given to people aged over 21, as the legal age at which knives may be purchased has just been raised from 16 to 18, but I have no indication of how assiduously this would be applied on this occasion. Also, I'm not suggesting that your average female, middle-aged department store shopper is likely to embark on a sherry-driven killing spree if held up in the check-out queue. In fact, the only statistics seemingly available relate to studies of young men, so there is no apparent evidence supporting the likelihood of women - young or otherwise - using a knife as a lethal weapon.

Knives have been in use, in some form or another, since 3000BC, so I am not about to invoke the nanny-state and campaign for a ban on them now. Nor have I any particular stance on the sale of kitchen knives, except to agree with a legal age limit, as bans might make life awkward for those who are culinary-inclined. (However, I think it's worth noting that you cannot purchase a knife under the age of 18, but at 17, you can legally drive a car - surely, a killing machine if ever there was one?)

No, it's not a technical argument about the merits of bans and age limits that I wish to get into here. It's more a question of the morality of giving away a sharp kitchen knife as a promotional item. Hearing that announcement inside a national chain store, it felt wrong. I felt uneasy, more unsafe and, yes, maybe a little paranoid. But, is it me, or is this offer, in the modern climate, just wholly inappropriate, totally irresponsible and even downright idiotic?

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