Downing Street has not denied reports that the Prime Minister could accept a recommendation that would effectively ban cigarettes for the next generation.
Rishi Sunak is considering introducing some of the world’s toughest anti-smoking measures by steadily increasing the legal age for consuming tobacco, according to The Guardian, which cited Whitehall sources.
Last year a major review led by Dr Javed Khan backed England following in the footsteps of New Zealand, which is planning to impose a gradually rising smoking age to prevent tobacco being sold to anyone born on or after January 1, 2009.
Dr Khan recommended “increasing the age of sale from 18, by one year, every year until no-one can buy a tobacco product in this country”.
If implemented by 2026, it would mean anyone aged 15 and under now would never be able to buy a cigarette.
Health minister Neil O’Brien appeared to reject adopting that approach in April, when he said the Government’s policy for achieving a smoke-free nation by its 2030 target would focus on “helping people to quit” rather than applying bans.
No 10, however, refused to pour cold water on Friday’s report that a more stringent approach could be adopted, with Mr Sunak understood to be looking at different policy advice on how to reach England’s smoke-free target.
In his Government-commissioned report published in June 2022, Dr Khan said that without urgent action, England would miss the 2030 target by at least seven years, with the poorest areas not meeting it until 2044.
He put the annual cost to society of smoking at about £17bn–£2.4bn to the NHS alone.
A UK Government spokesman said: “Smoking is a deadly habit, it kills tens of thousands of people each year and places a huge burden on the NHS and the economy.
“We want to encourage more people to quit and meet our ambition to be smoke-free by 2030, which is why we have already taken steps to reduce smoking rates.
“This includes providing one million smokers in England with free vape kits via our world-first ‘swap to stop’ scheme, launching a voucher scheme to incentivise pregnant women to quit and consulting on mandatory cigarette pack inserts.”
The legal age for buying cigarettes and other tobacco products in England and Wales is 18, having been raised from 16 in 2007 by the previous Labour government.
Deborah Arnott, chief executive of Action on Smoking & Health (Ash), said raising the legally permitted age for tobacco use had delivered results in other countries.
“Smoking is highly addictive and only one in three smokers quit before they die, taking on average 30 attempts before they succeed,” she said.
“If the Government is serious about making England smoke-free by 2030, it needs to reduce youth uptake as well as help adult smokers quit.
“Ash strongly supports raising the age of sale, it has worked well in the US and is popular with the public.”
But smokers-rights group Freedom Organisation for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco (Forest), said the move was anti-Conservative and would not stop people from smoking.
Director Simon Clark said a ban would “will simply drive the sale of cigarettes underground and into the hands of criminal gangs”.
He added: “Treating adults like children by denying them the right to buy cigarettes legally would take the nanny state to another level.”
“Smoking rates have been falling for decades. The idea that any government would prioritise tackling smoking at a time when the country faces far more important challenges at home and abroad is frankly obscene.
“If it is true that the Prime Minister wants to introduce some of the world’s toughest anti-smoking measures, denying millions of adults the freedom to choose, it will be a Conservative Government in name only.”
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