The age at which people can buy cigarettes and tobacco in England should rise by one year every year so that eventually no one can buy them, according to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. This proposal, which will be put to a free vote in parliament, aims to gradually increase the age of sale from 18, ensuring that children who are currently 14 will never be allowed to buy tobacco in their lifetime.
Smoking is the leading cause of preventable ill-health, increasing the risk of strokes, heart disease, dementia, and stillbirth, as well as causing one in four deaths from cancer. Despite smoking rates decreasing since the 1970s, there are still over five million smokers in England and six million across the UK. Shockingly, one in nine 18 to 24-year-olds still smoke, highlighting the urgent need for action to prevent teenagers from taking up this deadly habit.
Speaking at the Conservative party conference, Mr Sunak emphasized that there is no safe level of smoking and that addressing this issue is crucial for the well-being of future generations. He stated, “If we want to do the right thing for our kids, we must try and stop teenagers from taking up cigarettes in the first place. Without a significant change, thousands of children will start smoking in the coming years and have their lives cut short. 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.”
The idea of gradually increasing the smoking age was initially proposed by Javed Khan, the former Barnardo’s chief executive, who was commissioned by the government to explore innovative strategies to combat smoking.
While the previous government under Boris Johnson deemed such a move unlikely, Mr Sunak has decided to support this approach as part of the government’s ambition to make England smoke-free by 2030, with less than 5% of the population smoking.
It is worth noting that this proposal aligns with similar legislation being introduced in New Zealand, where the sale of tobacco products will be prohibited for individuals born after 2008. The success of such measures in New Zealand indicates the potential effectiveness of raising the age of sale in England.
The vote in parliament regarding the age of sale for cigarettes will not be influenced by a government whip, allowing Conservative MPs to vote according to their conscience. Mr Sunak expressed his position, stating, “It is a matter of conscience, and I want you all and the country to know where mine is.” This commitment to individual freedom of choice demonstrates the government’s dedication to addressing the smoking epidemic.
In addition to raising the age of sale for cigarettes, the government is also considering measures to restrict the sale of disposable vapes and regulate the flavorings and packaging of these devices. A complete ban on the sale of disposable vapes is one potential option. This comprehensive approach aims to address the rising rates of children using these products and prevent another generation from falling victim to nicotine addiction.
The announcement of the proposed increase in the smoking age is hailed as a critical step by experts in the field. Michelle Mitchell, from Cancer Research UK, commended the prime minister for prioritizing the health of UK citizens over the interests of the tobacco lobby. Deborah Arnott, from Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), described the measures as unprecedented and expressed optimism that they would accelerate the decline of smoking, ultimately rendering it obsolete.
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