Will Sunak’s cigarette ban clean a generation’s lungs or has it already gone up in smoke?

Joe Burman critiques the smoking ban to be implemented by Rishi Sunak.

Joe Burman
6th November 2023
Amongst a slew of policies, including cancelling the northern leg of HS2 and scrapping A-levels, Sunak has proposed an incremental ban on buying cigarettes. This would mean the legal age to buy cigarettes would increase year on year so they can never be sold to those born on or after 1 January 2009.

The policy is being touted as the "biggest public health intervention in a generation” by Sunak himself. However, is prohibition the best solution; shouldn’t the 6.4 million who currently smoke in the UK be first on the Government’s public health agenda? According to a 2020 study, 55% of smokers in the UK wanted to quit. But the Task Force for Lung Health, a UK group aimed at preventing lung cancer, said they need advice, support and treatment to do this. Under the Conservatives, budget cuts to local councils has resulted in funding to ‘stop smoking’ services falling by 45%. Is this a government that sounds serious about public health?

There’s also the burning question of how effective banning tobacco would be in reducing the already plummeting number of youth smokers. The number of 20-25 year olds that smoke has already halved in the last 20 years, already at an all time low.

Smoking is falling out of fashion, with vaping taking its place. Vaping is just as addictive but has much less stigma attached to it, making it a much more attractive option. Banning young people from buying tobacco whilst vapes are readily on sale will have negligible impact on addiction.

A ban would also inevitably create a black market as what is stopping those born in or before 2008 from buying their post 2009 friends cigarettes? Any ban would require a huge amount of enforcement and will only be a minor inconvenience to any young person who wants to buy cigarettes.

I’m just struggling to understand what the aim of this policy is. It doesn’t have an effect on the public's health now, it will create a huge black market and it won’t stop young people from becoming addicted to nicotine. It just seems to be meaningless and simply a headline. A ban like this, to be effective, needs to be accompanied by other policies such as reducing nicotine content in cigarettes, an investment into stop smoking services and a public health campaign aimed at young people to reduce the use of vapes.

Whilst the rest of the western world is moving towards an increasingly liberal position on drugs, where proper education and investments into public health services has been shown to reduce addiction and limit harm, the Government seems to be taking a step backwards.

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