Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has described his plan to increase the legal smoking age annually as the “biggest public health intervention in a generation”.
In his speech at the Conservative Party conference, Mr Sunak said the legal age for buying tobacco should rise every year from 2009 to stop youngsters taking up smoking in a bid to “try and stop teenagers taking up cigarettes in the first place”.
He said “a 14-year-old today will never legally be sold a cigarette” under new legislation for England.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Smoking is unequivocally the single biggest preventable cause of death, disability and illness in our society.
“Everyone recognises this measure will be the single biggest intervention in public health in a generation.”
Asked about restricting people’s right to choose, Mr Sunak said there was “no safe level of smoking”.
Downing Street, which said it expects the plans will mean up to 1.7 million fewer people smoking by 2075, have not specified when a free vote on the crackdown on buying cigarettes will be held, but the Prime Minister’s press secretary said: “Rishi Sunak is a man in a hurry.”
In his speech, the Prime Minister said: “People take up cigarettes when they’re young – four in five smokers have started by the time they’re 20.
“If we are to do the right thing for our kids, we must try and stop teenagers taking up cigarettes in the first place.
“Because without a significant change thousands of children will start smoking in the coming years and have their lives cut short as a result.”
Mr Sunak also said more must be done to “restrict the availability” of vapes to children.
Number 10 said the consultation on vaping will examine restricting the flavours and descriptions of vapes so that vape flavours are no longer targeted at children; regulating sale displays of vapes; regulating packaging; and restricting the sale of disposable vapes.
Ministers have faced repeated calls to ban the use of disposable vapes to help protect children and reduce the significant environmental impact of the single-use products.
“Disposable vapes are an inherently unsustainable product, meaning an outright ban remains the most effective solution to this problem,” said David Fothergill, chairman of the Local Government Association’s Community Wellbeing Board.
Commenting on Mr Sunak’s announcement, Professor Chris Whitty, England’s 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.”
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