Plan to Raise Smoking Age Yearly in England Draws Mixed Reactions

October 11, 2023

Rishi Sunak, prime minister of the United Kingdom, wants to increase the age at which people can buy tobacco and cigarettes by one year, every year—from the current minimum of 18, to the point where sales are effectively prohibited altogether.

If passed, the proposed law will take effect in 2027. It will mean that anyone born on or after January 1, 2009—those who are currently under 15—will never be able to buy cigarettes legally in England.

The plan was unveiled at the governing Conservative Party’s annual conference in early October, where Sunak said, “If we want to do the right thing for our kids, we must try and stop teenagers taking up cigarettes in the first place.”

“Four in five smokers have started by the time they’re 20,” he continued. “Later, the vast majority try to quit, but many fail because they’re addicted.”

The government’s Department of Health and Social Care stated that this “would be the most significant public health intervention in a generation.”

Many health charities have applauded the government’s move.

Sunak’s plan was earlier suggested in a government-commissioned review led by Dr. Javed Khan in 2022. The idea of raising the legal age year by year was among the report’s 15 recommendations to reduce smoking harms and achieve the UK’s aim to be “smoke-free” by 2030 (meaning that under 5 percent of the population would smoke).

Promoting vapes as a much safer substitute for cigarettes was another recommendation in the Khan review, which led to the government promising free vape starter kits for 1 million people who smoke earlier this year.

But in his recent comments, Sunak said the government would also weigh restricting sales of disposable vapes, and consider the impact of flavors and packaging on young people.

Youth vaping has been the subject of UK headlines recently. And an ongoing debate about the role of disposables could lead to their being banned, like in France and other European countries—even if one influential Conservative lawmaker poured cold water on that idea in September.

With smoking killing 76,000 people a year in the UK, many health charities have applauded the government’s move to restrict cigarette sales. Michelle Mitchell of Cancer Research UK said that if the plan goes ahead, “the prime minister will deserve great credit.” Asthma + Lung UK’s chief executive, Sarah Woolnough called it a “gamechanger.”

But there’s been dissent, too. Boris Johnson, who was Conservative prime minister at the time the Khan review was commissioned, called Sunak’s plan “barmy,” suggesting the abrupt cut-off would be unworkable. And some tobacco harm reductionists are also opposed.

“The true public health imperative is the large stock of around six million adults who already smoke, and this policy does nothing for them.”

Clive Bates, a prominent British advocate and ex-director of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH, UK), wrote a critique of Khan’s review in 2022. He called Sunak’s proposal “a poor solution to a disappearing problem.”

“Youth smoking is England is already at a very low and declining level thanks to vapes pushing out cigarettes,” Bates told Filter. “The true public health imperative is the large stock of around six million adults who already smoke today, and this policy does nothing for them.”

For “the few kids who want to smoke in the future, this measure will not be a barrier,” he continued, “just as the current 18-year age limit does not stop them today. So my main objection is that the policy is pointless.”

ASH surveys show that smoking among English youth aged 11-15 has substantially declined in recent years. In 2002, 10 percent smoked; by 2018, it was 2 percent.

Despite government assurances that only those selling cigarettes to underage buyers will be penalized, the prospect of slow-motion prohibition generating unregulated markets and criminalization also troubles some advocates.

“There are no scientific trials or epidemiological evidence that show what effect such a law would have, or what the unintended consequences will be.”

One of them is Marewa Glover, a public health academic in New Zealand. There, similar legislation to outlaw smoking for the next generation was implemented in early 2023. New Zealand aims to be “smoke free” by 2025.

Dr. Glover, who is Māori and specializes in smoking cessation, opposes New Zealand’s law in part because she anticipates increased criminalization that will further marginalize Māori people with high smoking rates. “Every previous form of drug prohibition around the world provides a case study,” she wrote for Filter in 2021.

Speaking to Filter after Sunak’s announcement, she described New Zealand’s law as an “untried policy,” noting that no one will be affected by it until 2027 (when the impacted age cohort turns 18 and the legal age of purchase will be raised to 19). So as yet, there are “no discernible effects or impact of this law change” for the UK to draw upon.

Naming countries and cities that have tried and failed to implement bans on adults buying tobacco, Glover continued that “there are no scientific trials, observation data or epidemiological evidence that show what effect such a law would have in any other nation, or what the unintended consequences will be.”

One country she mentioned was Bhutan, which repealed its ban during the pandemic, due to cross-border COVID transmissions associated with the illicit trade in tobacco.

Another case of unanticipated consequences came in 2020, when the South African government imposed a pandemic-lockdown ban on tobacco sales (plus alcohol and vapes). Research found that instead of quitting cigarettes, people simply started buying them from unregulated sources, often purchasing “unusual brands.” Sales of single cigarettes—potentially an easy entry-point for people who don’t already smoke—increased. The country lost substantial tax revenues while achieving no discernible public health benefit.

“We know from countries that have raised the age of sale to 21, that is already having a positive effect in driving down young people’s smoking rates.”

Yet other people who support harm reduction for smoking are more positive about Sunak’s plan. Deborah Robson, senior lecturer in tobacco harm reduction at Kings College, London, told Filter that “measures to drive down smoking rates across all ages are welcome.”

“While we don’t yet know the impact of incremental age increases on age of sale, like the recent policy introduced in New Zealand,” she continued, “we do know, from countries that have raised the age of sale to 21, that is already having a positive effect in driving down young people’s smoking rates.”

Like New Zealand, the UK government’s plan for a “smoke-free generation,” includes increased investment in smoking cessation services and associated mass media campaigns, which Robson supports.

ASH has also welcomed the prime minister’s announcement. “The twin track approach of raising the age of sale and tougher enforcement to stop young people starting, matched by substantial additional funding to motivate addicted smokers to quit and provide them with the support they need to succeed, will help get us on track to a smokefree future,” stated Chief Executive Deborah Arnott.

ASH opposes a ban on disposable vapes, however, on the basis that it would “turbo-charge” the unregulated market.

And Robson emphasized that while the impact of any potential new vaping restrictions is “less clear,” it is vital that they don’t disadvantage people who have switched from smoking to vaping.

“If the PM truly wants to address the leading preventable cause of death, people who currently smoke need an alternative to cigarettes,” she said.



Photograph (adapted) by Mike Mozart via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0

Both The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, and the Centre of Research Excellence: Indigenous Sovereignty & Smoking, founded by Dr. Glover, have received grants from the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World.

Kiran Sidhu

Kiran is a tobacco harm reduction fellow for Filter. She is a writer and journalist who has written for publications including the Guardian, the Telegraph, I Paper and the Times, among many others. Her book, I Can Hear the Cuckoo, was published by Gaia in 2023. She lives in Wales. Kiran's fellowship is supported by an independently administered tobacco harm reduction scholarship from Knowledge-Action-Change—an organization that has separately provided restricted grants and donations to Filter.

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