Health charities welcome Sunak’s plan to curb smoking in England

<span>Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA</span>
Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA
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Banning growing numbers of people in England from buying cigarettes is a bold move that will save lives and create the country’s first “smoke-free generation”, health charities have said.

The plan, first reported in the Guardian and which Rishi Sunak formally unveiled in his leader’s speech at the Conservative party’s annual conference, will also help relieve the strain on the NHS, given that smoking causes so much ill-health, experts said.

Under the plan, anyone born on or after 1 January 2009 – in effect anyone who is 14 or younger now – will not legally be able to buy cigarettes in England ever during their lives as the smoking age is raised by one year every year, subject to MPs’ approval.

Related: Vaping and de-nicotinisation: what UK can learn from New Zealand’s smoking crackdown

“This could be the gamechanger we’re looking for to tackle smoking – an incredibly positive step forward – and protect the next generation from lung conditions caused by this deadly addiction,” Sarah Woolnough, Asthma + Lung UK’s chief executive, said.

If passed, the law would take effect in 2027. The Department of Health and Social Care said it had “the potential to phase out smoking in young people almost completely as early as 2040”. It “would be the most significant public health intervention in a generation”, it added.

Sunak highlighted that four out of five smokers had picked up the habit before they were 20. Raising the age of sale from 16 to 18 in 2007 would lead to 30% fewer 16- and 17-year-olds smoking.

Michelle Mitchell, the chief executive of Cancer Research UK, said: “Raising the age of sale on tobacco products is a critical step on the road to creating the first ever smoke-free generation. If implemented, the prime minister will deserve great credit for putting the health of UK citizens ahead of the interests of the tobacco lobby.”

New Zealand recently became the first country in the world to bring in the same policy. The UK will follow suit from 2027, as long as MPs back the tough measure, on which they will be given a free vote.

Boris Johnson was urged to adopt annual rises in the legal age of buying tobacco in June 2022 when he was prime minister by Dr Javed Khan, whom he had commissioned to investigate how to reduce smoking and its ruinous effects on health.

Khan’s review [pdf] recommended as one of its four key policy changes “increasing the age of sale from 18, by one year, every year until no one can buy a tobacco product in this country”. Johnson did not act on the recommendation.

Sunak told delegates that he also planned to restrict the availability of vapes to young people. The numbers of under-18s using them has tripled in the last three years, the DHSC said.

A public consultation will examine whether:

  • The flavours and descriptions of vapes should be limited, to reduce their appeal to children.

  • Shops should be forced to keep vapes out of children’s sight.

  • Vape packaging and presentation should be restricted.

  • The sale of disposable vapes should be curbed.

Smoking costs the NHS and social care an estimated £17bn a year, as well as causing people lost earnings and early death.

“This is a momentous public health intervention and we welcome the government’s bold and ambitious action, which will lead to longer and healthier lives,” said Prof Sir Stephen Powis, NHS England’s national medical director.

Steve Brine, the Conservative MP who chairs the Commons health and social care committee and is a former public health minister, said: “I am fully supportive of moves toward a smoke-free generation. It will save tens of thousands of lives, given that smoking remains the biggest preventable killer in our country today and is the embodiment of a long-term decision.”

A recent report by Frontier Economics found that 184,000 people in Britain will be diagnosed with a preventable cancer, with smoking the main cause, costing the country £78bn.

The Institute of Economic Affairs, a free market thinktank, criticised the plan. Christopher Snowdon, its head of lifestyle economics, called it a “prohibitionist wheeze [that is] hideously illiberal and unconservative”. It “will create a two-tier society in which adults buy cigarettes informally from slightly older adults and will inflate the black market in general”, he said.