UK smoking ban: How will it work and who will be affected?

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Rishi Sunak has announced plans for a UK smoking ban by raising the legal smoking age by one year, every year meaning a 14-year-old today will never legally be able to buy a cigarette.

The prime minister said in his speech at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester that the government will introduce a plan to phase out the sale of cigarettes for the next generation in what would be a major step forward for overall health in the UK.

The PM also pledged to crack down on the sale of disposable vapes to children, saying more must be done to restrict their availability to under-18s.

Mr Sunak said in his speech: “Four in five smokers have started by the time they’re 20, later the vast majority try to quit but many fail because they’re addicted and they wish they had never taken up the habit in the first place.

“If we could break that cycle - if we could stop the start - then we would be on our way to ending the biggest cause of preventable death and disease in our country.

“I propose that in future we raise the smoking age by one year every year. That means a 14-year-old today will never legally be sold a cigarette and that they and their generation can grow up smoke free.”

Following the prime minister’s announcement, here we take a look at the current British smoking laws and how they could change:

People currently under the age of 14 will never be able to smoke legally under new proposals (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
People currently under the age of 14 will never be able to smoke legally under new proposals (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

What are the current smoking laws in the UK?

The legal age for buying cigarettes and other tobacco products across the UK is 18, having been raised from 16 in 2007 by the last Labour government.

In July 2007 it also became illegal to smoke in any pub, restaurant, nightclub and most workplaces and work vehicles, anywhere in the UK.

Currently, you must be 18 or older to buy and use a vape in the UK. There are no nationwide legal restrictions or laws enforced on vaping in public areas at present, and the use of them indoors is generally permitted unless an establishment has specifically imposed a ban.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the measures would not take the right to smoke away from current smokers (EPA)
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the measures would not take the right to smoke away from current smokers (EPA)

How would a smoking ban work?

It is expected that the plan - which would effectively ban smoking - would follow a similar format to the measures introduced in New Zealand last December, when they banned the sale of tobacco to anyone born on or after 1 January 2009.

The reforms involve steadily increasing the legal smoking age, making it illegal for the next generation to ever buy cigarettes.

Although exact plans are unclear, it is expected that the UK would also ban the sale of cigarettes and tobacco to anyone born after a certain date, raising the legal age for smoking every year. If the UK implemented the rules by 2027, anyone aged 14 and under now will never be able to buy a cigarette.

Mr Sunak told the Conservative Party conference that the ban would not take away the right to smoke from current smokers and that a parliament vote on the measure would be a “matter of conscience” with no party whip implemented.

Single-use vapes are also expected to be banned, following concerns that they were being “marketed towards children”.

The PM told the Tory conference: “As any parent or teacher knows, one of the most worrying trends right now is the rise in vaping amongst children – one in five children have used vapes. We must act before it becomes endemic.

“So we will also bring forward measures to restrict the availability of vapes to our children, looking at flavours, packaging displays and disposable vapes.”

Number 10 said the consultation on vaping will examine restricting the flavours and descriptions of vapes so that vape flavours are no longer targeted at children; regulating sale displays of vapes; regulating packaging; and restricting the sale of disposable vapes.

Why ban smoking?

In 2019, the government set an objective for England to be smoke-free by 2030, meaning only 5 per cent of the population would smoke by then.

Last year a major review led by Dr Javed Khan said that without further action, England would miss the target by at least seven years, with the poorest areas in society not set to meet the target until 2044. He also put the annual cost to society of smoking at about £17bn – £2.4bn to the NHS alone.

Dr Khan backed proposals to increase the age of sale in his report, and recommended “increasing the age of sale from 18, by one year, every year until no one can buy a tobacco product in this country”.

The PM said in his speech on Wednesday that introducing stricter measures on smoking would “cut cancer deaths by a quarter” and “significantly reduce long-term pressure” on the NHS.

Reaction to the ban

Smokers-rights group Freedom Organisation for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco (Forest) say the measures are “desperate” and a “creeping prohibition” on smoking.

“These are desperate measures by a desperate prime minister,” director Simon Clark said.

“Raising the age of sale of tobacco is creeping prohibition, but it won’t stop young people smoking because prohibition doesn’t work. Anyone who wants to smoke will buy tobacco abroad or from illicit sources. This is the opposite of levelling up, it’s dumbing down.”

He added: “This is now a conservative government in name only because the prime minister has just taken a wrecking ball to the principles of choice and personal responsibility.”

Former prime minister Liz Truss has also shared said she will vote against the measure. She said on Monday that it was time for the Conservatives to “stop banning things”.