United Kingdom Pushes Ahead With ‘Smoke-Free Generation’ Tobacco Law

“Having taken up smoking at the age of 14, I was smoking 40 [cigarettes] a day by the age of 20. And as a 21st birthday present to myself I gave up. But today, 40 years later […] I still feel like a fag sometimes. That is how addictive smoking is,” said Andrea Leadsom, a Member of Parliament in the United Kingdom. She was addressing the lower chamber just before an ambitious tobacco regulation draft bill passed a second reading.

“This is not about freedom to choose; it is about freedom from addiction,” she highlighted.

On 16 April, the UK parliamentarians voted for a progressive ban on tobacco products which makes it illegal to ever sell cigarettes to people born after 1 January 2009. The legal age for buying tobacco products would increase by one year every year until it eventually covers the entire population.

The draft legislation will now be referred to a committee for detailed discussion and amendments. Once these have been dealt with, Parliament will vote again, and should it pass a third reading, it would go to the House of Lords for a final vote, possibly as soon as in mid-June.

Strictest in the world

Should the new law pass, it will be one of the strictest in the world. Similar legislation, aiming to create a smoke-free generation, was overturned in New Zealand with a change of government. In Malaysia, the proposed generational tobacco ban was abandoned due to industry pressure.

“We’re hopeful it will get to a point further than all the other policies in the world,” Jorge Alday, director of tobacco industry watchdog, STOP, part of the global public health organisation, Vital Strategies. However, he admitted uncertainty about the bill’s chances against the weight of the tobacco lobby’s influence.

Aside from gradually increasing the minimum age for legally buying cigarettes until it covers more and more people, the bill also proposes an additional fine on selling tobacco to underage smokers, a new tax on vaping, a ban on disposable e-cigarettes and restrictions on their content, flavours and packaging, according to the BBC.

According to the UK’s Office of National Statistics, 6.4 million people, or almost 13% of the country’s population, smoked cigarettes in 2022. There has been a significant decline in cigarette use in the last decade, contrary to the use of new tobacco products, which are on the rise. 

E-cigarettes, or vapes, were most popular among those aged 16 to 24 years, reaching 15.5% of that population in 2022, an increase of roughly a third from 2021. Amongst ex-smokers, e-cigarettes are also frequently used with traditional cigarettes or instead of them, among ex-smokers.

Smoking also creates a considerable burden on healthcare. In England alone, there were 474 400 smoking-related hospital admissions in 2015/16, costing almost £2m, according to Action for Smoking and Health.

Efficient policy

“We know that other age restriction policies work to reduce youth uptake,” says Alday. “Monitoring and surveillance would be needed to confirm the impact, but it doesn’t have to be a huge investment and the UK already has some good monitoring systems in place.”

Critics argue that it would be complicated to enforce the bill, ensuring the retailers aren’t selling to young people. That, some cigarette makers argue, also can create space for more illicit trade.

“I think it’s a false argument. Even if there was an increase it wouldn’t be to the extent the tobacco industry suggests,” Alday said, adding that “the tobacco industry makes this comment for any policy.”

He also doesn’t think that “subtracting cigarettes as an alternative necessarily makes vaping more attractive.”

Regulations that ensure young people never begin smoking, otherwise known as a ‘tobacco generational endgame,’ could be a particularly efficient way to reduce smoking prevalence, proponents say. 

Although no government has yet to see such a policy through to the end, that’s what the studies done so far suggest, according to STOP.

Notably, nine out of ten adults who smoke daily first try smoking by the age of 18 and only about 7,5% are successful in quitting, even though over a half of them try, according to the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This makes policies targetting adolescents not using cigarettes as yet the most effective.

“At the end of the day we’re talking about young people who are not starting to smoke,” Alday concludes.

Image Credits: Zaya Odeesho/ Unsplash.

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