Sudden UK Election Shelves Contentious Tobacco and Vapes Bill

May 23, 2024

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Tobacco and Vapes Bill has gone up in smoke after his surprise announcement, on May 22, of a snap election in the United Kingdom.

The bill would permanently ban anyone born after 2008 from legally buying cigarettes, by gradually raising the minimum purchasing age from the current 18. There’s controversy over that, and a similar law in New Zealand was ditched in late 2023.

But the UK legislation would also respond to recent outcry over youth vaping by giving ministers new powers to restrict vape flavors, other contents, packaging, and point-of-sale displays deemed to attract youth.

These provisions (together with a new vape tax announced in March), have been condemned by tobacco harm reduction advocates, when access to vape flavors is critical to many adults who switch from smoking.

The bill will not be rushed through in the brief so-called “wash up” period before Parliament is dissolved.

As Filter reported in April, the bill was close to becoming law, having passed through the House of Commons.

But the prime minister’s announcement of a July 4 election date has stopped the Tobacco and Vapes Bill in its tracks, for now.

Online reports citing government sources have confirmed that the bill will not be rushed through in the brief so-called “wash up” period before Parliament is dissolved prior to the election.

Some advocates have celebrated the news.

“Legislation like this has a wide range of life-or-death consequences and needs careful and prolonged scrutiny,” British tobacco harm reduction expert Clive Bates, of Counterfactual Consulting, told Filter. “It should not be rammed through in a couple of days.”

Bates said that for several reasons he was “glad” the bill has been scrapped for now. “More importantly, a delay means a chance to reconsider.”  

But what will happen after the election?

In his May 22 speech, Sunak recommitted himself and his Conservative Party to the legislation. He said his party would “ensure that the next generation grows up smoke-free.” The bill is expected to feature in the party’s election manifesto.

But dismal polling for the Conservatives makes them outsiders to win. Betting odds heavily favor the left-of-center Labour Party to form the next government.

That might mean more of the same on this particular issue. In April, Labour supported the Tobacco and Vapes Bill. It passed by 383 votes to 67—and most of the votes against were from Conservative MPs, rebelling against their party’s leadership.

Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour Party leader and potential next prime minister, has supported the incremental smoking ban, and his party has pledged to reintroduce it if it wins power.

“The legislation has pointless measures on smoking and counterproductive measures on vaping. We now have a chance to get this right.”

But Bates sees some potential for flexibility on some of the measures once they’re revisited after the election. “I hope that Labour will include a commitment to legislate, but will not slavishly stick with the flawed Tory [Conservative Party] proposals,” he said.

“The legislation has pointless measures on smoking and counterproductive measures on vaping—what I call a misfire combined with a backfire,” Bates continued. “We need to use vaping to address the problem of smoking in middle-aged adults and take a more sophisticated approach to protecting youth.”

“I would like a new government to come in willing to take a fresh look at how best to deal with tobacco and nicotine,” he concluded. “We now have a chance to get this right.”

 


 

Photograph of 10 Downing Street, residence of the UK prime minister, by Sergeant Tom Robinson via Wikimedia Commons/OGL V1.0

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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