The Prime Minister has put forward new proposals that would see smoking phased out and measures against vapes.

Speaking at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, the Prime Minister pledged to action against tobacco and vaping, focusing on under-age sales.

As rumoured, the PM proposed to “raise the smoking age by one year, every year so that a 14-year-old today will never be legally sold a cigarette”.

This proposed new legislation will make it an offence for anyone born on or after 1 January 2009 to be sold tobacco products – effectively raising the smoking age by a year each year until it applies to the whole population and has the potential to phase out smoking in young people almost completely as early as 2040.

This is a similar scheme to one used in New Zealand. Sunak warned that “smoking places huge pressures on the NHS and costs our country £17bn a year”.

On this proposal he appealed to Conservative MPs’ consciences and explained that it would be a free vote. “The vote on this in parliament will be a free vote, as the ban on smoking in public places was and raising the smoking age to 18 was,” he said. “There will be no government whip. It is a matter of conscience.”

Sunak also took aim at vaping and warned that there are plans to “bring forward measures to restrict the availability of vapes to children” that will take into account flavours, packaging, displays and disposable vapes.

It plans to hold a consultation that will look at:

  • Restricting the flavours and descriptions of vapes so that vape flavours are no longer targeted at children 
  • Regulating point of sale displays in retail outlets so that vapes are kept out of sight from children and away from products that appeal to them, such as sweets
  • Regulating vape packaging and product presentation, ensuring that neither the device nor its packaging is targeted to children
  • Restricting the sale of disposable vapes, which are clearly linked to the rise in vaping in children
  • Close loopholes in the law which allow children to get free samples and buy non-nicotine vapes

The Scottish government recently announced plans to address vaping as well, with a ban on single-use vapes being considered.

Concerns over the black market

The announcements prompted a mixed reaction from the sector.

On the proposed new tobacco legislation, Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) chief executive James Lowman said: “We will work with the Government on how this policy will be implemented and enforced. Our sector has a proud record on preventing under age purchases, and we will continue to provide the advice members need to comply with whatever age restriction policy parliament decides on.”

Head of Lifestyle Economics at free market think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs, Christopher Snowdon, warned that a phasing out of smoking would fuel the black market.

“Not only is this prohibitionist wheeze hideously illiberal and unconservative, it is full of holes. 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.

“It may well breach equalities legislation and will very likely be challenged in the courts. It will certainly create huge problems for retailers and may ultimately require a system of national ID cards.”

Smoking lobbying group Forest accused the government of “dumbing down” and that the black market for tobacco products would increase. Director Simon Clark said: “These are desperate measures by a desperate prime minister.

“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. Future generations of adults who are considered old enough to vote, pay taxes, drive a car and drink alcohol are going to be treated like children and denied the right to buy a product that can be purchased legally by people a year older than them.”

Chief Executive of health charity ASH, Deborah Arnott, gave the announcement a warmer welcome. “The Prime Minister has today announced an unprecedented set of measures to protect the next generation and hasten the day when smoking is obsolete. Children are four times as likely to start smoking if they grow up with smokers, and once they do it’s highly addictive and difficult to quit.”

Chairman of the APPG on Smoking and Health Bob Blackman CBE MP added: “We congratulate the Prime Minister for sending a clear message in his speech today that this government is determined to deliver a smokefree future for our children. We look forward to seeing his words turned into action, with commitments in the King’s speech in November to legislation in the forthcoming parliamentary session.”

Vape ban warning

On vaping, Lowman added: “We welcome further consultation on vaping products and hope the government will look carefully at increasing funding for enforcement activity to prevent underage sales and stamp out the sale of illegal vapes.”

While welcoming the phasing out of smoking, the Independent British Vape Trade Association (IBVTA) warned that potential bans on popular vape products coming at the same time would “deny smokers a proven smoking cessation tool”.

Chair of the IBVTA Marcus Saxton said: “We welcome the Government’s intention to phase out tobacco use. However, if this is going to work, then smokers need proven pathways off their addiction. All the evidence shows that single-use products are a crucial first step to getting smokers off tobacco particularly in disadvantaged communities with high levels of smoking where, because of their ease of use, they are an effective smoking cessation tool. If the government implements vape bans, it risks missing its own target to make England smoke free by 2030 and undermines its decision to phase out tobacco use.”

Saxton added that the IBVTA was willing to work with the government on addressing under-age use of vapes. “As an industry, we recognise that youth vaping needs to be tackled and we stand-ready to work with Government and towards this. We welcome wider consultation on the industry but would also warn however against an outright ban on single use vapes. Such a move would be a boon for criminals and the illicit market which would quickly fill the void left by responsible businesses.

“Existing legislation should be properly enforced, and responsible manufacturers and retailers properly supported, rather than reaching for the blunt instrument of a ban that will have hugely damaging consequences.”