Prime minister to create a ‘smokefree generation’ with historic law change

04 October 2023

The government is set to introduce a historic new law to stop children who turn 14 this year or younger from ever legally being sold cigarettes in England, in a bid to create the first ‘smokefree generation’. 

Proposed new legislation will make it an offence for anyone born on or after January 1, 2009, to be sold tobacco products – effectively raising the smoking age by a year each year until it applies to the whole population. This has the potential to phase out smoking in young people almost completely as early as 2040.

Smoking is highly addictive, with four in five smokers starting before the age of 20 and remaining addicted for the rest of their lives. By stopping young people from ever starting to smoke, the government will protect an entire generation of young people from the harms of smoking as they grow older. 

Smoking is the UK’s biggest preventable killer – causing around one in four cancer deaths and leading to 64,000 deaths per year in England. It puts huge pressure on the NHS, with almost one hospital admission every minute attributable to smoking and up to 75,000 GP appointments each month taken up by smoking-related illness. 

It is also one of the biggest drivers of health inequalities across the country – deaths from smoking are more than two times higher in the most deprived local authorities, where more people smoke, compared to the most affluent. Smoking rates in pregnancy also vary hugely, with as many as 20 per cent of pregnant women smoking in some parts of the country – increasing the chance of stillbirth by almost 50 per cent. 

Smoking also costs the economy £17bn 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. 

More broadly, it is expected to mean up to 1.7m fewer people smoke by 2075 – saving tens of thousands of lives, saving the health and care system billions of pounds and boosting the economy by up to £85bn by 2075. It would also avoid up to 115,000 cases of strokes, heart disease, lung cancer and other lung diseases.

Smoking will not be criminalised, and the phased approach means anyone who can legally buy cigarettes now will not be prevented from doing so in future.

Rishi Sunak, the prime minister, said, “No parent ever wants their child to start smoking. It is a deadly habit – killing tens of thousands of people and costing our NHS billions each year, while also being hugely detrimental to our productivity as a country.  

“I want to build a better and brighter future for our children, so that’s why I want to stamp out smoking for good. These changes will mean our kids will never be able to buy a cigarette, preventing them getting hooked and protecting their health both now and in the future.”

Professor Chris Whitty, chief medical officer, said,Smoking damages many lives. It causes stillbirths, asthma in children, heart disease, stroke and dementia in addition to causing most lung cancer and increasing risk of many other cancers. 

“Becoming addicted to cigarettes in early life is one of the worst things that can happen for future health. Preventing people becoming addicted to smoking, and helping those who smoke to quit are two of the most important measures we can take to improve health.

Steve Barclay, health and social care secretary, said, “Smoking kills, places a huge burden on the NHS and costs the economy billions every year. Through this landmark step we will protect our children, grandchildren and the health service from the dangers of smoking long into the future.

“And while vaping is an effective tool for adults quitting smoking, we are determined to tackle the concerning surge in children vaping, driven by marketing and flavouring which appears to specifically target young people.”

The government has also announced a further major crackdown on youth vaping, by announcing an intention to consult on plans to reduce the appeal and availability of vapes to children. 

Vaping is rightly used by adults as a tool to quit smoking, but the health advice is clear – if you don’t smoke, don’t vape, and children should never vape. It is already illegal for children to vape, but in a worrying trend, youth vaping has tripled in the last three years, and more children now vape than smoke. 

To ensure we get the balance right between protecting our children and supporting adult smokers to quit the government will bring forward a consultation.

The consultation will look at:

  • Restricting the flavours and descriptions of vapes so that vape flavours are no longer targeted at children.
  • Regulating point-of-sale displays in retail outlets so that vapes are kept out of sight from children and away from products that appeal to them, such as sweets.
  • Regulating vape packaging and product presentation, ensuring that neither the device nor its packaging is targeted to children.
  • Restricting the sale of disposable vapes, which are clearly linked to the rise in vaping in children. These products are not only attractive to children but also incredibly harmful to the environment.

The government also plans to close loopholes in the law which allow children to get free samples and buy non-nicotine vapes.

Enforcement activity will also be strengthened, with an investment of £30m to support agencies such as local trading standards, HMRC and Border Force to take action to stop underage sales and tackle the import of illicit tobacco and vaping products at the border.  

Professor Sir Stephen Powis, NHS national medical director, said, “Smoking is the single biggest cause of preventable death and costs the NHS billions of pounds each year. Almost every minute of every day someone is admitted to hospital because of smoking.

“This is a momentous public health intervention and we welcome the government’s bold and ambitious action which will lead to longer and healthier lives. A smokefree generation will relieve an enormous burden on our NHS. 

“Stop smoking services help hundreds of thousands of people every year quit for good. With double the funding - now £140m – even more people will be able to access this free service to kick the habit once and for all.”

Michelle Mitchell OBE, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said, “Raising the age of sale on tobacco products is a critical step on the road to creating the first ever smokefree generation. The Prime Minister deserves great credit for putting the health of its citizens ahead of the interests of the tobacco lobby. Investing more in stop smoking services is essential for the nation.

“Smoking places huge pressure on the NHS and the economy – with over 500,000 hospital admissions every year in England attributable to smoking. 

“We will support the UK Government to quickly implement legislation to raise the age of sale, alongside their investment of more money in stop smoking services.

Deborah Arnott, chief executive of Action on Smoking and Health, said, “The prime minister has today announced an unprecedented set of measures to protect the next generation and hasten the day when smoking is obsolete. 

“Children are four times as likely to start smoking if they grow up with smokers, and once they do it’s highly addictive and difficult to quit. 

“The twin track approach of raising the age of sale and tougher enforcement to stop young people starting, matched by substantial additional funding to motivate addicted smokers to quit and provide them with the support they need to succeed, will help get us on track to a smokefree future. 

“We look forward to the day when smoking is no longer responsible for avoidable ill health and perinatal mortality in babies and young children, nor the leading cause of premature death in adults.

The government will also continue to drive forward its agenda to support current smokers to quit for good, by:

  • More than doubling the current funding for stop smoking services, investing an additional £70m a year to expand locally delivered and cost-effective services. This will support around 360,000 people to quit smoking.
  • Providing an additional £5m this year and then £15m a year thereafter to fund national tobacco marketing campaigns to explain the changes, the benefits of quitting and support available.
  • Rolling out a new national ‘swap to stop’ scheme – supporting one million smokers to swap cigarettes for vapes – the first national scheme of its kind in the world.

It comes on top of previous interventions such as the introduction of plain packaging on tobacco products, raising the age of sale from 16 to 18 and banning smoking in public places – all of which have had a significant impact on smoking rates. In particular, raising the age of sale reduced the prevalence of smoking among 16/17-year-olds by 30 per cent.

Overall, the number of people who smoke has reduced by two thirds since 1974, when smoking was at its peak.

Camilla Kingdon, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said, “As a children’s doctor, I am in no doubt that both smoking and vaping are terrible for the health of babies, children and young people.  The prime minister’s announcement is hugely welcome.”

Jeanette Dickson, chair of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, said,The chair of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges welcomes the prime minister’s bold announcement to effectively end smoking in the UK.

“The damage done by smoking affects everyone, from unborn babies through to our oldest family members.  The best way to prevent these harms is to reduce and ultimately bring an end to smoking in the UK.”

Tim Mitchell, president of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, said, “Smoking is a major cause of cancer and many other conditions that require surgery, as well as affecting recovery after an operation. By reducing the number of people who smoke, these measures will save lives and reduce the need for surgery.”

Adam Briggs, senior policy fellow at The Health Foundation, said, "We welcome the prime minister's announcement today to raise the age of tobacco sales from 18 by one year every year. Smoking causes around 70,000 deaths and 500,000 hospital admissions in England annually and is the leading cause of differences in life expectancy between the most and least deprived communities. 

"Creating a smoke-free generation will have lifelong health benefits for young people, their friends, and families, reducing pressure on public health services, the NHS, and social care. If policymakers wish to take public health seriously, they must go further and implement wider preventative strategies.   

"The government should learn from tobacco policy and take bolder steps to prevent poor health from other leading risk factors such as alcohol and junk food. Meaningful long-term change will only be possible if these actions are part of a coordinated cross-government strategy for health that ensures everyone has the basic building blocks of good health, such as good quality housing, secure employment, and high-quality education."

James Lowman, the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) chief executive, said, “The convenience sector has a proud record on preventing underage purchases, and we will need support from the government to implement a totally new policy on tobacco age restriction. The government must consider all of the possible long-term challenges for colleagues and retailers at the front line of implementing a generational ban on the sale of tobacco.”

“The availability of vaping has clearly helped smokers to quit and drive a reduction in smoking rates. The purpose of this consultation should be to properly regulate the vaping market and make sure it operates responsibly and sustainably. It’s clear that something needs to be done to reduce the impact that these products have on the environment, and these products should never be sold to or used by children. We welcome further discussion with the government on the options set out in the consultation.

“Current and future regulations must be enforced far better. It is unacceptable that responsible retailers are being undermined by others selling products that are already illegal, often to children.  The chancellor can address this in his Autumn Statement with further funding for Trading Standards to carry out more local enforcement activity against rogue vape sellers.”