The government has announced its intention to introduce an ‘historic new law to protect future generations of young people from the harms of smoking’.
In what would be ‘the most significant public health intervention in a decade’, the legislation would prevent any young people who turn 14 this year – or are younger – from ever being able to legally buy cigarettes in England, effectively raising the smoking age ‘by a year each year until it applies to the whole population’. If passed, the legislation would apply from 2027 – a similar law was brought into force in New Zealand last year.
The government is also more than doubling funding for stop smoking services, it says, with an extra £70m a year to expand local provision. Smoking remains the UK’s biggest ‘preventable killer’, responsible for 64,000 deaths a year in England and ‘almost one hospital admission every minute’.
‘I want to build a better and brighter future for our children, so that’s why I want to stamp out smoking for good,’ said prime minster Rishi Sunak. ‘These changes will mean our kids will never be able to buy a cigarette, preventing them getting hooked and protecting their health both now and in the future.’
‘Becoming addicted to cigarettes in early life is one of the worst things that can happen for future health,’ added chief medical officer Chris Whitty. ‘Preventing people becoming addicted to smoking, and helping those who smoke to quit are two of the most important measures we can take to improve health.’
The proposal has been criticised as unworkable by some commentators, however, with the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) calling it ‘hideously illiberal’ and ‘ full of holes’. It would create a ‘two-tier society in which adults buy cigarettes informally from slightly older adults, and will inflate the black market in general,’ said its head of lifestyle economics, Christopher Snowdon. ‘It may well breach equalities legislation and will very likely be challenged in the courts. It will certainly create huge problems for retailers and may ultimately require a system of national ID cards.’
The government will also consult on restricting disposable vapes and regulating both flavours and packaging to reduce their appeal to children. Alongside restricting the flavours and descriptions of vapes to ensure they’re not targeted at young people, the consultation will cover regulating packaging and point-of-sale displays in shops to keep vapes out of sight from children and away from sweets and other products that appeal to them, as well as restricting the sale of disposable vapes which are ‘clearly linked to the rise in vaping in children’.
‘Vaping is rightly used by adults as a tool to quit smoking, but the health advice is clear – if you don’t smoke, don’t vape, and children should never vape,’ said health and social care secretary Steve Barclay. ‘It is already illegal for children to vape but in a worrying trend, youth vaping has tripled in the last three years, and more children now vape than smoke.’