UK Law: Rishi Sunak Plans for Smoke Free Generation


The prime minister, Rishi Sunak, has made it his aim to stop anyone in the UK who was born before 1st January 2009 from ever being able to purchase cigarettes.

This new law will enforce that anyone who is currently aged 14 or younger will be unable to legally buy tobacco products, which is a similar legislation that New Zealand implemented last year. The Conservative prime minister, who has consistently been anti-drugs of any sort, wants to build a generation of non-smokers. Is this historic? Is this possible? How will it work? What is going on? Let’s find out what Rishi Sunak and his plans are.

Smoking in the UK

It’s no surprise that smoking has been a problem around the world for a long time. Yet another drug that establishments pushed and promoted for decades, and then were forced to backtrack on due to health concerns. Nonetheless, it seems that all the tobacco companies are now hiding in the shadows, putting money into vapes instead. More on this later. Smoking kills around 13 people an hour in the UK, or 120,000 people a year. Globally, tobacco products cause around 8 million mortalities. Smoking has long been a public health concern, prompting governments worldwide to implement stringent laws aimed at reducing tobacco use and protecting the well-being of the public. However, like the alcohol prohibition in America in the 20s, it’s hard to simply take away a drug that everyone is essentially addicted to and wants. Let’s take a look at the current legal situation surrounding cigarettes and tobacco products in the UK. 

UK Smoking Laws

Most of these laws will be familiar for many other nations. 

Minimum Age for Purchasing Tobacco

The legal age for purchasing tobacco products in the UK is 18. Shop owners are strictly prohibited from selling tobacco to individuals under this age, contributing to efforts to reduce youth smoking rates. However, this obviously doesn’t stop older people buying cigarettes and giving them to younger people. 

Smoking in Enclosed Public Spaces

One of the cornerstones of UK smoking laws is the prohibition of smoking in enclosed public spaces. This includes workplaces, restaurants, pubs, and public transportation. The ban not only extends to traditional tobacco products but also encompasses e-cigarettes, recognizing the potential risks associated with secondhand smoke. 

Graphic Health Warnings

In an effort to inform and deter, UK tobacco products are required to display graphic health warnings on their packaging. These vivid images and messages serve as a stark reminder of the serious health consequences of smoking, targeting both current smokers and potential initiates. You must’ve seen the picture of the hospitalised man next to his loving wife and child. 

Tobacco Advertising and Promotion

To curb the allure of smoking, the UK has implemented strict regulations on tobacco advertising and promotion. Bans on certain types of advertising, sponsorship, and promotional activities are in place to prevent the tobacco industry from enticing new smokers, especially young individuals who may be more susceptible.

Smoking in Vehicles

To safeguard the health of young people, it is illegal to smoke in a vehicle with anyone under the age of 18 present. Second hand smoke is a killer too and must obviously be taken into account. 

Tobacco Taxes

Cigarettes in the UK are expensive. It can cost around £15-20 for a 30 gram of tobacco. These high taxes on tobacco products serve as a dual purpose in the UK. It acts as a deterrent, making smoking more financially burdensome, while also generating revenue for public health initiatives. 

E-cigarettes

The world of vapes in the UK is a little confused. On the one hand, disposable vapes have been pushed by health professionals to desperately stop the increase of smokers in the UK. However, unfortunately, what has happened is that these colourful, flavourful devices have ended up appealing mainly to younger people. People that would, perhaps, have not even been smokers anyway. Currently, these devices are legal, but the Daily Mail reports:

“The PM also announced a crackdown on vaping amongst children promising to look at banning child-friendly flavours and packaging that encourage kids to pick up the habit. Disposable devices are also in the firing line.”

Rishi Sunak

Rishi Sunak became prime minister in 2022, and has had an anti-drug stance since the beginning. Thus, in a way, it is no surprise that he will be the one leading probably one of the most historic anti-smoking laws in UK history. In fact, many are calling this the “biggest public health intervention in a generation”. This is being implemented by a party who recently banned laughing gas, who ignored advice from the Misuse of Drugs Association to decriminalise drugs, and who are being led by a man who openly said this about the use of drugs:

“Drugs are horrific. There is nothing recreational about them. I have never taken them and will be incredibly tough on anyone who does.”

This is exactly the stance that the prime minister is now taking on tobacco. This war on drugs approach takes no prisoners, pulls no punches and makes no effort to empathise with users. Smoking and its health risks is a problem worldwide, and of course more effort needs to be done to help those who are addicted. However, is this the right way to go about it? Let’s take a look at what Rishi Sunak’s new legislation will actually mean. 

The Smoke Free Generation

There are around 6.4 million smokers in the UK currently, which is about 12.9% of the population. We’ve already mentioned the death toll per year too. There is no doubt – like the majority of the world’s nations – that smoking is a global killer that ideally needs to be stopped. But will Rishi Sunak’s new legislation help to do this? The prime minister wants to stop anyone currently aged 14 or younger (born after 2009) from ever being able to smoke. The plan will raise the smoking age by one year, every year, which will ultimately mean that a 14-year old today will never legally be sold a cigarette. If the plan went to perfection, smoking in under-30s could essentially be eliminated by 2040. It’s important to realise that the law would not make smoking itself illegal, but instead the selling of it. In essence, the act of smoking would not be a criminal act. Also, this law would not include the rest of the UK (Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland), only England for now. But will this new ideal of a smoke free generation actually come to fruition? 

Perhaps Yes

Smoking kills many people each year in the UK, and it also costs a great deal of taxpayers money. The National Health Service of England fully supports this new law because smoking costs society a great deal of money through healthcare. The GOV UK website writes: 

“Smoking… costs the economy £17 billion a year, through smoking related lost earnings, unemployment, early deaths and costs to the NHS. These changes amount to one of the most significant public health interventions by the government in a generation. If the government does not act, the independent review published in 2022 estimated that nearly half a million people will die from smoking by 2030.”

Thus, evidently, it would benefit almost everyone if smoking was reduced. There probably aren’t many people on the planet that would disagree with that, even those who are addicted to it. However, the real question lies in how you make this happen. Does a hard-line approach ever actually work?

Perhaps No

Rishi Sunak is yet again enforcing a bit of an extremist law here. The aim is to end a legal supply of cigarettes, which he supposedly believes will stop smoking entirely. This, as seen throughout history, will not work the way he wants. As mentioned before, this was perfectly exemplified by the prohibition in America. Christopher Snowon, working at the Institute of Economic Affairs, spoke to the BBC and reportedly said: 

“You’re going to have, almost certainly, a fairly large, informal market of smokers who are old enough to buy cigarettes selling cigarettes to people who are not old enough… The problem with prohibition isn’t that it doesn’t have any effect whatsoever on consumption, the problem with prohibition is it leads to massive black markets and a lot of tax revenues gone.”

The UK’s opposing political party – Labour – have also come out in support of this new legislation. If Rishi Sunak genuinely wants to create a smoke free generation, rather than just an illegal smoking generation, then perhaps he needs to re-think his plans. Of course there is no easy way of ending smoking in a nation, but a more empathetic and educational approach may well be more useful. But what do you think?

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