Posted on 26 April 2024

​In a landmark decision, cross-party MPs have thrown their support behind the government's ambitious plans to effectively ban smoking and establish a "smoke-free generation", as part of a strategy to reduce the detrimental impacts of tobacco consumption on public health. If the bill succeeds, very soon, anyone born in 2009 or later will likely never be able to purchase tobacco products in their lifetime. This is a very serious policy, and one that has angered opponents as being too authoritarian and restrictive of personal freedoms.

The essence of the bill revolves around stringent regulations concerning the sale of cigarettes in the UK, rather than targeting the act of smoking itself. Under the proposed legislation, the legal age for purchasing cigarettes (presently set at 18) will increase annually by one-year increments. Consequently, individuals born in or after 2009 will be permanently prohibited from legally acquiring cigarettes, although this will not affect those currently permitted to purchase tobacco products. Opponents of the legislation are worried that this could encourage a black market, and Tory MPs Penny Mordaunt and Liz Truss both shared concerns that the legislation risks causing a two-tier system of fundamental rights for people born a day apart.

To bolster enforcement and deter underage tobacco and vape sales, the government plans to introduce on-the-spot fines of £100 for non-compliant retailers in England and Wales. Local authorities will be empowered to utilise the proceeds from these fines to enhance enforcement efforts, supplementing existing penalties of up to £2,500 that courts can impose. Additionally, the government has allocated £30 million towards enforcement initiatives, emphasizing a concerted effort to combat the proliferation of cigarettes on the black market. Illegal tobacco and smoking product smuggling tends to lean more towards unregulated vapes now, with a burgeoning market for underage children who want to vape, which has become an extremely common and popular practice in secondary schools.

These regulations will extend to all duty-free shops within the UK, albeit individuals will retain the ability to legally import cigarettes from abroad, provided they were acquired through lawful means elsewhere. The government aims to fully implement these measures by 2027, underscoring a commitment to fostering a healthier populace through regulating the sales of the smoking products, rather than smoking itself. This is similar to proposed US gun laws whereby bullets (here, the smoking product) are restricted in sales, making guns (i.e. the act of smoking) eventually redundant.

Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister, has expressed a desire to collaborate with the devolved governments of Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland to enact similar legislation across the entirety of the UK, amplifying the potential impact of these preventive measures. Acknowledging smoking as the leading preventable cause of death, disability, and illness, the government underscores its commitment to reducing the staggering toll it exacts. With approximately 80,000 smoking-related deaths annually in the UK, alongside a formidable economic burden estimated at £17 billion per year on the NHS and the broader economy, the imperative for action is unmistakable.

The government projects that the creation of a "smoke-free generation" could avert over 470,000 cases of heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, and related ailments by the century's end, underscoring the transformative potential of these regulatory interventions. There remains the spectre of vaping - the government is poised to enact measures to curb vaping, particularly among young individuals with no history of smoking. Disposable vapes, a burgeoning concern, will face a ban in England as early as April 2025, with plans to extend this prohibition nationwide. Moreover, restrictions on the contents, flavours, and packaging of nicotine vapes aim to mitigate their appeal to youth, complemented by the introduction of a vaping tax from October 2026.

In a bid to safeguard public health, the legislation will also prohibit vaping alternatives, such as nicotine pouches, from being accessible to minors, thus fortifying preventive efforts against emerging nicotine consumption trends. Recent data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reveals a decline in smoking prevalence, with 12.9% of individuals aged 18 and over identifying as smokers. However, that decline is not reflected in young people, with over 12% of 16 to 17-year-olds in England reporting cigarette use. While smoking rates among adolescents have declined over the past decade, the burgeoning popularity of vaping, particularly disposable vapes, warrants continued vigilance.

In summary, while commendable progress has been achieved in curbing smoking rates, concerted efforts are imperative to address emerging challenges posed by alternative nicotine consumption trends. The government's multifaceted approach, encompassing regulatory interventions, enforcement measures, and public health initiatives, signals a resolute commitment to fostering a healthier, smoke-free society for generations to come. The issue is one of personal autonomy, and those who are more freedom-minded will not support arguably-invasive government involvement in people’s choices and decisions.

Still, one has to ask – while there is so much legislation to curb smoking, alcohol sales are continually high; with the undeniable correlation between alcohol misuse and the incidence of road traffic accidents, domestic abuse, antisocial behaviour and alcohol-related disease, will the government risk the moral hypocrisy of tackling one vice head-on without addressing the other (larger?) elephant in the room?

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