UK set to ban tobacco sales for a ‘smoke-free’ generation. Will it work?

The UK’s smoking ban aims to phase out sales of tobacco, which is one of the main causes of cancer deaths in Britain.

A woman holds her cigarette as she smokes in Trafalgar Square in central London
A woman smokes in Trafalgar Square in central London [File: Toby Melville/Reuters]

Britain is set to impose tough measures to stub out smoking, which has emerged as one of the biggest causes of cancer deaths in the country.

Parliament approved the government’s “historic” plans to create a “smoke-free” generation on Tuesday in a bid to reduce the number of people dying from smoking-related diseases, a big burden on the country’s publicly funded National Health Service (NHS).

MPs voted 383-67 to give the Tobacco and Vapes Bill a second reading, overcoming vocal opposition from a section of the ruling Conservative Party, which opposes state interference in people’s lives. It now needs approval from the House of Lords to come into effect. No party in the 790-member Lords has an overall majority, but the Conservatives outweigh Labour 278-173.

“Parliament has now begun the process of consigning smoking to the ash heap of history,” Deborah Arnott, chief executive of the pressure group Action on Smoking and Health, told Al Jazeera.

“The passage of the bill should be expedited to ensure it is on the statute book before the general election. The public, who overwhelmingly support the legislation, expect nothing less,” she said.

An advertisement on the Age of Sale legislation is seen in Westminister in London
An advertisement on the Tobacco and Vapes Bill, also referred to as the Age of Sale legislation, is seen in Westminster in London on April 16, 2024 [Maja Smiejkowska/Reuters]

What does the UK’s ban cover?

Rather than criminalising the habit, the bill aims to ensure people turning 15 this year and those who are younger will never be able to legally buy tobacco.

Currently, it is illegal to sell cigarettes to anyone under the age of 18. The government intends to bar sales to anyone born after January 1, 2009. Under the legislation, beginning in 2027, the legal age limit would increase by one year every year until it is illegal for the entire population.

If all goes according to plan, the government envisages that smoking among young people would be eradicated by 2040.

Shops in England and Wales caught selling cigarettes and vapes to underage people would face on-the-spot fines of 100 pounds ($125). Courts may already impose fines of 2,500 pounds ($3,118).

“We do expect over time, smoking to die out almost completely,” said Chris Whitty, chief medical officer for England, speaking on BBC Radio 4.

What’s behind the UK’s new rules?

Smoking is the United Kingdom’s biggest preventable killer.

About 13 percent of the adult population – 6.4 million people – were smokers in the UK in 2022, the Office for National Statistics estimated.

That is much lower than other European countries such as Italy, Germany and France, where 18 to 23 percent of adults smoke, according to figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Official figures show the habit leads to 64,000 deaths in England per year, causing about one in four deaths from cancer.

Medical and healthcare experts and charities say the toll is higher, estimating that smoking causes 80,000 deaths every year.

With the new ban, the UK government hopes to prevent more than 470,000 cases of heart disease, stroke, lung cancer and other diseases by the end of the century.

The legislation also seeks to clamp down on young people vaping by restricting flavours and packaging to make it less appealing to children. The jury is still out on vaping with the NHS judging it as “not risk-free”.

How is the ban viewed?

Pollsters found about two-thirds of people in the UK back a phased smoking ban.

Health Secretary Victoria Atkins told the House of Commons there is “no liberty in addiction”.

“Nicotine robs people of their freedom to choose. The vast majority of smokers start when they are young, and three-quarters say that if they could turn back the clock, they would not have started,” she said.

But libertarian-leaning MPs on the right of the ruling Conservatives, including former Prime Minister Liz Truss, have branded the move an attack on personal freedoms. During the parliamentary debate, Truss said it was a piece of “virtue-signalling”.

Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch said she was not a smoker and agreed with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s intentions but said she opposed the bill because she was concerned about its impact on people’s rights and difficulty in enforcing the policy.

“We should not treat legally competent adults differently in this way where people born a day apart will have permanently different rights,” she said on the social media platform X.

The legislation is one of Sunak’s flagship policies before the general election this year, which opinion polls suggest the opposition Labour Party would win.

“It’s world-leading in terms of reducing harms caused by tobacco and may lead to other countries following suit with similar measures,” said Dr Allen Gallagher, a research fellow in the Tobacco Control Research Group at the University of Bath.

Other approaches tried so far include price and tax measures, regulating the content of tobacco products, packaging and labelling measures, and advertising restrictions.

“This is the first test of a generational phasing-out of tobacco,” Gallagher told Al Jazeera.

“Time will tell if it’s enough.”

Have other countries imposed similar anti-smoking bans?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), tobacco kills more than eight million people each year, including an estimated 1.3 million non-smokers who are exposed to second-hand smoke.

The proposed ban is thought to have been inspired by a similar plan in New Zealand, introduced under former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern but scrapped this year by the new coalition government before it could be enforced. By stopping a generation from taking up smoking, the country of five million hoped to avoid about 5,000 preventable deaths a year.

In May, Portugal presented legislation to restrict tobacco sales and extend a ban on smoking to outdoor areas, including covered terraces. The country hopes to raise a tobacco-free generation by 2040. According to government estimates, about 13,500 deaths in 2019 were due to tobacco use in Portugal, which has a population of about 10 million.

Last year, Mexico brought one of the world’s most stringent smoking laws into force, implementing a total ban in public places, including hotels, beaches and parks, and stopping advertising. The WHO’s Pan American Health Organisation (PAWHO) estimated that smoking causes more than 10 percent of deaths in the country of 128 million, amounting to about 63,000 per year.

Also last year, Canada became the first country to introduce printed health warnings on individual cigarettes. Messages include “poison in every puff” and “cigarettes cause impotence”. Tobacco use remains the leading preventable cause of illness and premature death in the country of 39 million, killing approximately 48,000 people each year.

Since 2002, India has had a ban on smoking in public spaces although organisations can create specific smoking zones.

Source: Al Jazeera