The Memo: Is the new Tobacco and Vapes Bill a genius plan or will it all go up in smoke?

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Is the new Tobacco and Vapes Bill a genius plan or will it all go up in smoke?

James Westmacott - 29 April 2024

In an attempt to phase out vaping and cigarette smoking, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak recently introduced a new bill that would inhibit the sale of tobacco to young people on a staggered basis. According to the proposal, it would become illegal for anyone born after 1 January 2009 to ever purchase tobacco products, as the legal smoking age (which is currently 18would increase by one year each year. Whilst the aim of the new law is to create a ‘smoke-free’ generation, proponents argue that it will bring about a necessary reduction in lung cancer, heart disease, and strokesMeanwhile, its critics, though aware of smoking’s obvious detrimental effectsinstead feel that the state impinging on personal freedoms represents a degree of meddling typical of authoritarian governments. 

Smoking in the UK has already significantly reduced from a time where it was the complete cultural norm. For instance, it’s estimated that about 45% of the population were smokers in 1974, with the figure having dropped to a lowly 12% today. This is especially eye-opening when compared to smoking rates across Europe, where countries like Serbia, Greece, Hungary, and France are hitting in excess of 30% in their adult population. The stigmatisation of tobacco smoking through public health campaigns, indoor smoking bans and disincentivising images shown on packaging have therefore helped reduce rates in the UK, and that’s before we even mention the extortionate cost of the habit. 

Whilst cigarette smoking in the UK might be on its way out, it’s vaping that instead appears to be the modern issue. According to a survey conducted by Ash Smokefree GB Youth Surveys, looking at the period 2013-2023, it was found that a greater proportion of 11–17-year-olds now vape rather than smoke. The introduction of vapes hafacilitated faltering rates of cigarette consumption in adults as well as helping ease people off smoking entirely, but it’s the hitherto unknown consequences of vaping on very young people that remain the concern for many. That may hardly be a surprise given the colourful and flavourful branding of vape products which many argue appears more ‘childish’ in its advertising. 

It's important to note that the bill has only cleared the very first hurdle at this particular stage. Labour has elucidated its support of the Prime Minister’s bill, though opposition does exist amongst other senior Tory ministers and backbench MPs. Smoking does indeed remain the most preventable cause of cancer and other related illnesses in the UK, the elimination of which could save the NHS an estimated £17bn per yearHowever, with rising obesity rates stemming from highly processed foods, heightening alcohol consumption and government neglect on living standards, the policy may simply be rendered futile, as one way of damaging one’s health is merely replaced by many more.