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Creating the UK’s first smoke-free generation

No Smoking
By Emily Sharp
16 April 2024
Public Affairs
smoking ban

MPs have been debating the Tobacco and Vapes Bill today, with a vote expected later this evening on whether or not to create the UK’s first smoke-free generation, implementing one of the most stringent anti-smoking policies in the world. It would make it illegal to sell tobacco to anyone born after 2008, effectively increasing the minimum age for purchasing tobacco each year until tobacco sales are phased out entirely. The bill also includes new restrictions on vaping to increase penalties against sales to children with new £100 on-the-spot fines, as well as restrictions on flavours and packaging to reduce appeal to children.  

Supporters of the bill point to the widespread and undeniable health impacts of smoking, where every minute someone in England is admitted to hospital for a smoking related illness, resulting in 80,000 preventable deaths per year and a constant pressure and cost on the NHS. Vaping, considered the ‘healthier’ option for those trying to quit tobacco, still includes a variety of harmful and largely untested chemicals. Though it is currently illegal to sell to children, vaping is increasingly being marketed to children with flavours like ‘gummy bear,’ resulting in one in five children having tried it. 

There are a range of supporters for the policy, from a majority of doctors, nurses and health charities, a substantial majority of the public, and governments of all four UK nations. While Labour and the Lib Dems are supportive, the Conservatives are split. 

The Prime Minister has personally championed the policy, with some commentators already believing that this is the legislation he will be remembered for. The PM can both see the future cost savings for the NHS and public services, as well as believing it to be the morally right thing to do, however, other former Prime Ministers like Boris Johnson and Liz Truss are arguing that this type of ban creates a ‘nanny state’ which is definitively un-conservative. They argue that education and taxes are the way to push back against tobacco, citing the £10.4bn in tax revenue raised from tobacco sales last year that would be lost. They also argue that bans such as these have the potential to drive up the coolness factor of smoking, driving sales into the black market where it cannot be monitored or controlled. 

When the PM first announced this policy at the Conservative Party in October, he committed to it being a “free vote” meaning that “there will be no government whip, it is a matter of conscience.” While this may be true, it does not deviate from the fact that the party is split on the issue. As Labour is whipping its members to vote for the bill, it’s widely expected that there are enough votes to pass, but what will be interesting is to see how the vote splits within the Tories, with a number of ministers and cabinet ministers expected to oppose or abstain on the bill.  

As a major piece of legislation, this issue will certainly be used to define the party ahead of the general election. Last year, even though obesity has significantly higher healthcare costs than smoking, the PM shelved plans to enact a ban on two-for-one junk food sales, citing the cost of living crisis and supporting the more traditional free choice argument.  

Labour have been critical of the decision to make this a free vote, believing it is not a matter of conscious, accusing the PM of being “too weak to stand up to the Liz Truss win” of the party. However, it is taking a quick trip down memory lane and noting that when the original smoking ban went through in 2006, it was also a free vote for the Labour government at the time, with many of the cabinet, including the then Deputy PM John Prescott, voting against the bill. 

For comparison, the UK is not the only nation considering such a policy; in fact, many other nations are considering or have already enacted something similar. Last year, New Zealand enacted a law that went even further, banning sales to anyone born after 2008 and then restricting those sales to ‘specialty shops’, before the incoming government did a U-turn and repealed the policy. More than 70 nations have bans on smoking in public indoor places, and some like Mexico go even further to restrict smoking in some outdoor public places as well. If the bill passes tonight, it will shift the line of anti-smoking policy away from limiting its use to fully phasing it out, setting a strong precedent for others to follow.