Rishi Sunak has committed to progressively increasing the legal age for purchasing cigarettes in England by one year each year as part of a rigorous campaign against smoking.

During his address at the annual Tory Party conference, the Prime Minister outlined this proposed legislation, emphasising that it would ensure that “today’s 14-year-olds will never legally acquire cigarettes, allowing them and their generation to grow up without exposure to smoking.” Sunak clarified that these changes would be subject to a parliamentary vote, with MPs granted a free vote, similar to the previous decisions to ban smoking in public places and raise the smoking age to 18. He stressed that there would be no government whip, making it a matter of personal conscience for parliamentarians.

In addition to these measures, Sunak also pledged to curtail the accessibility of vaping products as part of his commitment to prioritise the well-being of the younger generation. While he acknowledged the rights of current smokers, he argued that more could be done to prevent teenagers from taking up smoking in the first place.

Sunak stated, “I propose that we incrementally raise the legal smoking age by one year each year. This means that a 14-year-old today will never legally purchase cigarettes, enabling them and their peers to grow up free from the harms of smoking.” He went on to highlight the fact that a significant proportion of smokers initiate this habit during their youth, and many struggle to quit due to addiction, later regretting their decision.

He asserted, “If we can disrupt this cycle, if we can prevent the initiation of smoking, we will be making substantial progress towards ending the leading cause of preventable death and disease in our nation.” Downing Street anticipates that these measures will lead to up to 1.7 million fewer smokers in the country by 2075.

Regarding vaping, Sunak expressed concern about the rising use of these devices among children, with one in five children reportedly having tried them. He emphasised the need to act swiftly to address this issue before it becomes widespread and pledged to introduce measures to restrict children’s access to vapes. These measures will encompass considerations such as flavours, packaging, displays and disposable vaping products.

The government’s ambition, set in 2019, aims to make England smoke-free by 2030. A review led by Dr. Javed Khan, published in the previous year, recommended increasing the legal age for tobacco purchase incrementally, ultimately preventing anyone from buying tobacco products. Smoking is responsible for a significant portion of cancer cases and deaths in the UK, with nearly six million people in England still smoking. Dr. Khan estimated that smoking costs society approximately £17 billion annually, with an additional £2.4 billion burdening the NHS.

Cancer Research UK’s Chief Executive, Michelle Mitchell, praised the move to raise the age of sale for tobacco products, seeing it as a critical step toward achieving the first-ever smoke-free generation. However, Simon Clark, the director of the smokers’ group Forest, opposed the measure, characterising it as a form of creeping prohibition and arguing that it wouldn’t deter young people from smoking, as they might turn to overseas or illicit sources to obtain tobacco products. He expressed concerns about treating future generations like children, denying them the right to purchase a product legally available to those only slightly older.

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