Rishi Sunak delivered a landmark speech this month (October 2023) within which he proposed new restrictions on tobacco products, the BBC reports. The proposal has seen some backlash but forms a major part of the ongoing effort to achieve a “smokefree 2030” – essentially seeing national smoking rates reduced to 5% by that date.
The proposal, should it be enforced, would see the legal smoking age increased from 18, by one year, every year. This mimics the efforts made last year by New Zealand’s government, who introduced the same legislation in January 2022, and which has seen remarkable success since its introduction as their national smoking rates continue to fall.
While MPs are to be given a free vote in parliament for or against the proposal, so far it has received cross-party backing, as well as the support of major anti-smoking lobbyists Action on Smoking and health (ASH).
How The New Smoking Age Increase Will Work
Under the new plan, the age of sale increasing by one year, every year indefinitely would mean a child aged 14 today would never be able to buy tobacco.
This idea was one of the critical pillars of the Khan Review, which raised several concerns surrounding the nation’s current efforts against smoking, and suggested that if harsher action were not taken, a more realistic target would be a smokefree 2040+, rather than the touted 2030 deadline.
Why Raise The Legal Smoking Age Now?
As mentioned above, this plan was actually put forward by Javed Khan OBE, former CEO of Barnardo’s children’s charity, and current anti-smoking tsar. Originally presented in 2022 alongside a series of potential actions that could be taken to make the 2030 deadline achievable.
In his review, Mr Khan states that despite reduced visibility in modern times, smoking still has plenty to answer for:
- Almost 6 million people still smoke in England
- smoking remains the single biggest cause of preventable illness and death
- approximately 64,000 people are killed by smoking each year, that’s around twice as many people as have died from coronavirus (COVID-19) in the last 12 months.
- when used exactly as recommended by the manufacturer, cigarettes are the one legal consumer product that will kill most users – 2 out of 3 smokers will die from smoking unless they quit.
- in 2019, a quarter of deaths from all cancers were connected to smoking.
- smokers are 36% more likely to be admitted to hospital and need social care 10 years before they should.
- around one third of adult tobacco consumption is by people with a current mental health condition, with smoking rates more than double that of the general population.
- people with mental health conditions die 10 to 20 years earlier, and the biggest factor in this is smoking.
- smokers lose 10 years of life, or around 1 year for every 4 years of smoking after the age of 30.
- the annual cost to society of smoking is around £17 billion with the cost to the NHS alone about £2.4 billion – this dwarfs the £10 billion income from taxes on tobacco products.
- making smoking obsolete in England would lift around 2.6 million adults and 1 million children out of poverty.
Much akin to Khan’s findings, Prime Minister Sunak stated that “There is no safe level of smoking” going on to tell the conference:
"If we want to do the right thing for our kids, we must try and stop teenagers taking up cigarettes in the first place. Because without a significant change, thousands of children will start smoking in the coming years and have their lives cut short. Four in five smokers have started by the time they're 20. Later, the vast majority try to quit, but many fail because they're addicted."
When originally proposed, then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it was unlikely to happen, Rishi Sunak however has since thrown his backing behind it in a bid to recover the hopes of a smokefree 2030.
On the vote in parliament, he said there would be no government whip demanding which way Tory MPs should vote. "It is a matter of conscience and I want you all and the country to know where mine is," the prime minister said.
How Vaping May Also Be Affected
Alongside the restrictions on tobacco, a number of potential measures to combat the youth vaping epidemic in the UK were also laid out.
It was stated that the government aimed to restrict the sale of disposable vapes – which have caused much controversy since hitting UK shelves in 2021. As well as look into flavourings and packaging of vaping products also – not dissimilar to the introduction of the now infamous olive-drab packaging all tobacco products must now be sold in.
One option on the table has been to ban the sale of single-use vapes altogether. This appears to have stopped short of a total ban on all vaping products however, in light of the evident power of vaping as a cessation tool and method of tobacco harm reduction. A point also made by Javed Khan, who stated in his report that vaping should be front and centre in the battle against smoking.
Responses To The proposal
The plan has been heralded as positive by many, however there are some groups that fear it may lead to other problems, such as an illicit tobacco black market.
Simon Clark, of smokers' lobby group Forest, said it amounted to "creeping prohibition".
"It won't stop anyone smoking. Anyone who wants to smoke will buy tobacco abroad or from illicit sources."
Mr Clark had similar opinions in 2021 when it was suggested that printing smoking kills on individual cigarettes and ramping-up health warnings could help reduce national smoking rates.
Cancer Research UK's Michelle Mitchell on the other hand said the announcement on the smoking age was a "critical step".
"If implemented, the prime minister will deserve great credit for putting the health of UK citizens ahead of the interests of the tobacco lobby."
Deborah Arnott, leader of ASH, said what had been announced was an "unprecedented" set of measures which would hasten the day smoking is obsolete.
Have Your Say
While the national smoking age falls to a parliamentary vote, the proposed restrictions on vaping products have been opened up to public consultation which will run until 11:59pm on Wednesday 6th December 2023.
This is a rare opportunity for the vaping public to play a part in forging an effective but sensible path forward for vaping to continue to help smokers quit, whilst shielding the nation’s youth and indeed anyone who has neither smoked nor vaped before from temptation.
If you want to have your say, visit the link below to get started: