England to ban smoking: today’s children will never buy a cigarette

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Key points

  • Under the plan, the legal age  would rise from 18 every year, so a child now aged 14 would never be allowed to buy tobacco.
  • Officials stressed that smoking will not be criminalised, with anyone who can legally buy cigarettes now not be prevented from doing so in future.
  • Sunak said that the changes were a chance to “do the right thing for our kids”.
  • Smoking is the cause of one in four cancers and kills 64,000 people a year in UK.
  • New Zealand has introduced a similar ban for anyone born after 2008 to ever be able to buy tobacco.

London: The age at which people can buy cigarettes and tobacco in England is poised to rise by a year, every year in a move that would introduce a legal ban on smoking for the next generation.

Under the plan – which mirrors the world-leading New Zealand crackdown – the age of sale would rise from 18 every year, so a child aged 14 today would never be allowed to legally buy tobacco.

A soccer fan smokes a cigarette outside a pub in Liverpool.Credit: Getty

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced he would introduce the proposed law to parliament before next year’s scheduled general election to “do right thing for our kids”, vowing that MPs would have a free vote in parliament on the issue.

The idea was first put forward by a government-commissioned review in 2022. It said that by 2040, only those above the age of 35 would be able to make such purchases legally, leading to an estimated 1.7 million fewer people smoking by 2075.

Sunak, whose immigrant parents were a doctor and a pharmacist, has also promised to introduce measures to restrict the availability of vapes, or e-cigarettes, to children. It is currently illegal to sell vapes to children under 18 in the UK, but officials say youth vaping has tripled in the past three years and more children now vape than smoke.

Officials are also set to consider several options, including restricting flavoured vapes and regulating packaging and store displays to make the products less appealing to young people.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.Credit: Getty

Sunak told the Conservative Party conference in Manchester that said he believed it was the correct step to tackle the leading cause of preventable ill-health.

He said that smoking put major pressure on the National Health Service, with costs of £17 billion ($32.6 billion) a year, and the move would help the UK towards its goal to become smoke-free by 2030 – a figure defined as less than 5 per cent of the population smoking.

“For a Conservative, measures that restrict choice are never easy,” he said. “But I have spent a long time weighing up this decision.

“Simply put: unlike all other legal products, there is no safe level of smoking. And what has ultimately swayed me is that none of us, not even those who smoke, want our children to grow up to be smokers. This change can make that a reality. It will save more lives than any other decision we could take.”

Shares of Imperial Brands, the biggest seller of cigarettes in the UK, fell as much as 2.5 per cent in London following the announcement. British American Tobacco Plc, which gets most of its sales from markets outside Britain, was down 0.9 per cent.

The phased changes mean that anyone who can legally buy cigarettes now won’t be prevented from doing so in the future, with Sunak telling his colleagues it would not be fair “to take away the rights of anyone to smoke who currently does”.

While smoking rates have falling in Britain since the 1970s there are still more than 5 million smokers in England and 6 million across the UK. The Office for National Statistics estimates that 11 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds smoke.

A handful of rebels, including former prime minister Liz Truss, are expected to vote against the legislation on the grounds of personal choice.

Britain raised the legal age of sale for tobacco from 16 to 18 in 2007 which succeeded in reducing the prevalence of smoking among 16- and 17-year-olds by 30 per cent.

When the United States raised the age to 21, the smoking rate dropped by 39 per cent in that age group.

The proposal is similar to the law which came into effect in New Zealand this year, ensuring tobacco cannot be sold to anyone born on or after January 1, 2009.

If British parliament approves the proposal, the legal change would only apply in England – not in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales – whose own assemblies have devolved powers to control their own health policies.

Lion Shahab, an academic who co-directs the tobacco and alcohol research group at University College London, said the plan could be the government’s “defining legacy”, which would right a “century-old wrong” – tobacco products being the only legally available commodity that, if used as intended, will kill over half of its lifelong users.

Cancer Research UK’s Michelle Mitchell told the BBC 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,” she said.

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