British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Wednesday proposed raising the legal age at which English people can buy cigarettes by one year each year until the practice becomes illegal for the entire population. and that smoking is, he hopes, gradually eliminated among young people.
Unveiling his plan at the Conservative Party’s annual conference, Mr Sunak said he wanted to “stop teenagers starting to smoke” and repeated that the annual increase in the legal sales age would mean “a 14-year-old years today will never be legally sold a cigarette.”
It is currently illegal to sell cigarettes or tobacco products to anyone under the age of 18 in the UK.
Mr Sunak’s office said the phased changes would prevent children who turn 14 this year and those who are younger today from being legally sold cigarettes in England.
If Parliament approves the proposal, the legal change will only apply in England, not Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
“People start smoking when they are young. Four in five smokers started before the age of 20, Mr Sunak said. If we could break this cycle, if we could stop smoking, we would be well on our way to ending the largest cause of preventable death and disease in our country. »
The government has said smoking will not be criminalized and the gradual change means anyone who can legally buy cigarettes today will not be prevented from doing so in the future.
The number of smokers in the UK has fallen by two-thirds since the 1970s, but some 6.4 million people ― or around 13% of the population ― still smoke, according to official figures.
The British government raised the legal age for selling tobacco from 16 to 18 in 2007. This measure reduced the prevalence of smoking among 16 and 17 year olds by 30%, according to Mr Sunak’s office.
Public health experts have welcomed the Prime Minister’s plan to gradually raise the legal smoking age. A similar measure was approved in New Zealand last year.
The Sunak government’s plan to introduce legislation creating a ‘tobacco-free generation’ could become its defining legacy in righting a century-old wrong, with tobacco products being the only legally sold products which, if used as predicted, “will kill more than half of their users,” said Lion Shahab, an academic who co-leads the Tobacco and Alcohol Research Group at University College London.
Rishi Sunak also announced that his government would put in place measures to restrict children’s access to e-cigarettes. It is currently illegal to sell e-cigarettes to under-18s in the UK, but authorities say vaping among young people has tripled in the last three years and there are now more children who vape than children who smoke.
Authorities will examine different options, including limiting flavored vaping products and regulating packaging and display in stores, to make the products less appealing to young people.