Rishi Sunak has proposed new anti-smoking measures which would effectively ban the next generation from ever being able to buy cigarettes.
Speaking at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, the Prime Minister unveiled plans to raise the legal age to buy cigarettes by one year, every year - so that cigarettes would end up never being sold to anyone born after a certain date. This approach appears to have been taken from New Zealand, which introduced comparable measures last December.
Sunak told his audience: “Four in five smokers have started by the time they’re 20. Later, the vast majority are trying to quit, but many fail because they’re addicted and they wish they had never taken up the habit in the first place.”
He added that he would propose “a free vote” on the topic in Parliament, meaning all MPs could vote with their “conscience” - and would not have to vote along political party lines.
The Tory MP also said he would look at restricting the “availability of vapes for our children”, explaining that he would crackdown on how they appear to be marketed towards children. Critics have previously raised this, pointing to the products’ brightly-coloured packaging, flavours such as “bubblegum”, and the fact that in shops they are often found at the counter - next to the sweets and chocolate.
Responding to the news, Adam Briggs, Senior Policy Fellow at The Health Foundation, said: “We welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement today to raise the age of tobacco sales from 18 by one year every year.
“Smoking causes around 70,000 deaths and 500,000 hospital admissions in England annually, and is the leading cause of differences in life expectancy between the most and least deprived communities.
“Creating a smoke-free generation will have lifelong health benefits for young people, their friends, and families, reducing pressure on public health services, the NHS, and social care.”
He added that if “policymakers wish to take public health seriously”, they “must go further and implement wider preventative strategies” - such as by taking steps to tackle “other leading risk factors such as alcohol and junk food”.
Chris Thomas, head of IPPR’s Commission on Health and Prosperity, echoed these comments - saying that Sunak should be “congratulated on his ambition” in proposing “such bold, evidence-led action on tobacco”.
However, he also argued that “a coherent public health strategy now demands similar ambition on obesity, gambling, alcohol, and housing in the coming months.”
The Guardian previously reported the proposed smoking ban a few weeks ago, writing that the possible policies formed part of a new consumer-focused drive from the Conservatives ahead of the next general election - which is due towards the end of 2024.
Number 10 did not deny Sunak was considering a tougher approach to smoking, with a government spokesperson instead repeating the Tories’ commitment to the UK being smoke-free by 2030. They said in a statement: “Smoking is a deadly habit. It kills tens of thousands of people each year and places a huge burden on the NHS and the economy.
“We want to encourage more people to quit and meet our ambition to be smoke-free by 2030, which is why we have already taken steps to reduce smoking rates. This includes providing 1 million smokers in England with free vape kits via our world-first ‘swap to stop’ scheme, launching a voucher scheme to incentivise pregnant women to quit, and consulting on mandatory cigarette pack inserts.”
Meanwhile, a close ally of Sunak said the Prime Minister “hates” smoking and wants to crackdown on it both in the interests of young people and the NHS.
Last year a major government-commissioned review, led by Dr Javed Khan, warned that without urgent action, England would miss the government target of being smoke-free by 2030 - with the poorest areas not meeting it until 2044. According to the report, the annual cost of smoking to society is around £17 billion - with a cost of £2.4 billion to the NHS.
To combat this, he recommended following New Zealand’s plan to ban smoking - “increasing the age of sale from 18, by one year every year, until no one can buy a tobacco product in this country.” This is what Sunak proposed at the Tory Party conference on Wednesday (4 October).
Meanwhile, Dr Khan also urged ministers to promote e-cigarettes as an alternative as a way to help people stop smoking. But others are hoping for a crackdown on vaping in the hopes of stopping children becoming addicted to the nicotine-packed devices - with Sunak appearing to take that line in his conference speech.
Commenting on the issue, Science and Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan told Sky News: “We have been doing a review because this is a very worrying trend that we’re seeing of young children taking up vaping that had never smoked before, and it is extremely dangerous to their health and their wellbeing.
“It is something that we do need to act on and, as a government, what we’re trying to do is recognise what are the key challenges and grip them.”
Figures from Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) recently revealed that 20.5% of children aged between 11 and 17 had tried vaping, up from 13.9% in 2020. Meanwhile, data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that in 2022, 11.6% of 18 to 24-year-olds were regular smokers.
The legal age for buying cigarettes and other tobacco products in England and Wales is currently 18. It was raised from 16 in 2007, by the previous Labour Party government.