Whitty: Arguments against plan to ban youngsters from smoking ‘surprising’

England’s chief medical officer rejected “pro-choice” arguments from Tory MPs opposed to Rishi Sunak’s plans to ban young people from ever smoking.

Professor Sir Chris Whitty said cigarettes were a product “designed to take your choice away” and resistance to the plan was “surprising”.

The Prime Minister has granted his MPs a free vote on the issue later on Tuesday, with several expected to reject the plan – although with Labour supporting it, the measure is likely to comfortably clear its first Commons hurdle.

Popular Conservatism movement launch
Former prime minister Liz Truss is among the senior Tories who have criticised the plan (Victoria Jones/PA)

The plan, which would make it illegal to sell tobacco products to anyone born after January 1 2009, was announced by the Prime Minister in his speech to the Conservative Party conference last year.

But it has attracted condemnation from senior Conservatives including former prime ministers Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, who argue it impacts upon people’s freedoms.

But Sir Chris told BBC Radio 4’s Today: “This is a really serious health problem. And the reason this is doubly problematic is that the majority, the great majority, of smokers wish they had never started, but they become addicted at an early age and then they’re trapped and their choice has been taken away by that addiction.

“This is one of the reasons why the argument that ‘if you’re pro-choice, you’re in favour of cigarettes’ is so surprising, because this is a product which is designed to take your choice away from you.”

He added: “The aim of this legislation … is to ensure that no children 15 or below actually become addicted to smoking, or at least cannot be legally sold cigarettes.

“And we do expect that, over time, to lead to, essentially, smoking dying out almost completely, which would be an enormous public health achievement.”

Laura Farris
Laura Farris said it had taken her years to quit smoking (Jonathan Brady/PA)

Home Office minister Laura Farris also rejected the arguments made by her fellow Conservatives.

Ms Farris said: “I think this is a very, very sensible policy and I’m not particularly interested in arguments about freedom on this one.”

The minister, who took up smoking at 12, told LBC: “It took me years and years and years to quit. It’s one of my biggest regrets, actually.

“I’ve got two young kids now and the fact that they will never be able to walk into a shop and buy a packet of cigarettes is something I welcome.

“I have never met a single smoker who’s glad they did it, wishes that their children do it, can identify a single health benefit or any other life benefit.

“It gets you hooked. It’s a horrible habit. And even when you’re doing it, you know that you’re causing yourself irreparable harm. And it’s incredibly difficult to get off.”

Ms Truss has said the ban is “profoundly unconservative” while Mr Johnson described it as “nuts”.

Conservative MPs have been granted a free vote on the Tobacco and Vapes Bill, meaning they will not have to follow party orders to back it.

Former Cabinet minister Sir Simon Clarke said: “We need a lot more liberalism and a lot less statism.

“Let’s educate young people about the harm of tobacco. Let’s make it unattractive by banning glamorising adverts and taxing it.

“But let’s not ban it. An enforcement nightmare and a slippery slope – alcohol next?”

Ahead of the debate, doctors and health charities urged MPs to vote in favour of the proposals, which would ensure that nobody aged 15 or under today would ever be able to legally buy tobacco products.

Professor Steve Turner, president of the Royal College for Paediatrics and Child Health, said the Bill would “without a doubt … save lives”.

He said: “By stopping children and young people from becoming addicted to nicotine and tobacco, we decrease their chances of developing preventable diseases later in life, and will protect children from the harms of nicotine addiction.

“As paediatricians, we strongly urge MPs to use the important responsibility they have and support this Bill to protect children’s and our nation’s current and future health.”

Charmaine Griffiths, chief executive of the British Heart Foundation, said: “Decisive action is needed to end this ongoing public health tragedy – we urge every MP to vote for this landmark legislation at the Bill’s second reading.”

As well as raising the smoking age every year, the legislation includes provisions that will regulate the display, contents, flavours and packaging of vapes and nicotine products.

Smoking kills about 80,000 people a year and costs the NHS and the economy an estimated £17 billion annually.

According to the Government, creating a “smokefree generation” could prevent more than 470,000 cases of heart disease, stroke, lung cancer and other diseases by the end of the century.

Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said: “Rishi Sunak is too weak to stand up to the Liz Truss wing of his party, so has given his MPs a free vote.

“Though Tory MPs may oppose this measure, Labour will not play politics with public health. Labour will vote through this Bill, so that young people today are even less likely to smoke than they are to vote Tory.”