Rishi Sunak says there is ‘no safe level of smoking’ and it ‘isn’t the same as eating crisps or a piece of cake’ as he faces Tory backlash over ‘prohibition-style’ cigarette ban – just months after he delayed Government’s anti-obesity strategy
Rishi Sunak is facing a Tory backlash today against his plan to phase out the sale of cigarettes – but he defended his proposed smoking ban as the ‘biggest public health intervention in a generation’.
The Prime Minister yesterday used his Tory conference speech to announce he wants to increase the legal smoking age annually in a bid to try and stop teenagers ever taking up cigarettes in the first place.
His plans would see the legal age for buying tobacco rise every year from 2009, meaning a 14-year-old today will never legally be sold a cigarette under proposed legislation for England.
But, despite being hailed by health campaigners, the proposals have also been branded ‘ludicrous’, ‘illiberal’ and ‘anti-conservative’ by critics of state intervention on people’s freedoms, while a smoker’s group labelled the crackdown ‘creeping prohibition’.
Former PM Liz Truss – who this week demanded the Tories to ‘stop taxing and banning things’ – is set to vote against Mr Sunak’s plans when he offers a free vote to MPs on the issue in the House of Commons.
HISTORY OF SMOKING POLICY IN THE UK
2004: Ireland bans smoking in enclosed public places, including pubs, clubs and restaurants
2006: Scotland implements smoking ban on indoor public spaces
2007: England, Wales and Northern Ireland bring in indoor ban. In England, smoking is banned in almost all enclosed public spaces and the NHS goes smoke-free. Legal age to buy cigarettes raised from 16 to 18
2008: Cigarette companies told to feature pictorial health warnings on packets
2010: Government announces it will enforce tobacco display ban and consider plain packaging for tobacco products
2015: Smoking in cars with children banned in England and ban on the display of tobacco in small shops comes into force throughout the UK
2017: Government issues target to reduce smoking prevalence among adults to 12 per cent or less by 2022
2019: Department of Health publishes plans to make England smoke-free by 2030
2020: Menthol cigarettes are banned in the UK and EU
Nigel Farage, the former UKIP leader who was feted by Tory activists at their Manchester conference, this morning condemned the ‘stupid’ plan and warned it would just create a ‘black market’.
It is estimated that tobacco duties will raise £10.4billion for the Treasury this year, with that amount now set to decrease under the PM’s New Zealand-style plan to phase out legal sales.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme after his conference speech, Mr Sunak insisted there was ‘no safe level of smoking’ when he was quizzed about restricting people’s right to choose.
‘Smoking is unequivocally the single biggest preventable cause of death, disability and illness in our society,’ the PM said.
‘Everyone recognises this measure will be the single biggest intervention in public health in a generation. That’s why I believe it’s the right thing to do.’
He added: ‘Does anybody – however much they believe in choice as I do – want their children or grandchildren to grow up to smoke? I think the answer to that is probably not. This policy will make that a reality.’
The PM was challenged on why he was taking measures to ban the future sale of cigarettes but in June pushed back part of the Government’s anti-obesity strategy, saying he believed in ‘people’s right to choose’.
Mr Sunak said smoking cigarettes was not the same as eating crisps or a piece of cake because it could not be part of a balanced diet and there was no safe level of smoking.
Mr Farage, appearing on ITV’s Good Morning Britain, said: ‘How a man that clever can bring in a law this stupid, I do not know. All you do is create a black market.’
Another critic of Mr Sunak’s plans, Tory MP Sir John Hayes, said: ‘If the PM had wanted to raise the smoking age to 21 then most people would have supported him.
‘But this is a ludicrous idea and will end up with 40 year-olds being allowed to smoke but 39 year-olds not at some point.
‘People will forever be having to confirm their age. I can’t imagine why the PM has been persuaded by this madness.’
Christopher Snowdon, of the Institute of Economic Affairs think tank, said: ‘Not only is this prohibitionist wheeze hideously illiberal and unconservative, it is full of holes.
‘It will create a two tier society in which adults buy cigarettes informally from slightly older adults and will inflate the black market in general.’
Simon Clark, director of smokers’ group Forest, labelled the crackdown ‘creeping prohibition’ and said he does not think the policy will work.
‘Prohibition very, very rarely works,’ he told BBC Breakfast. ‘We’re infantilising the population there’s an important principle at stake here, which is freedom of choice and personal responsibility.’
But Sir Chris Whitty, chief medical officer for England, hit out at ‘bogus’ claims the plans will not reduce smoking rates.
He said: ‘Most people who smoke wish they had never taken it up. They try to stop and they can’t. And that’s the point – their choice has been taken away from them.
‘As a doctor I’ve seen many people in hospital desperate to stop smoking, because it’s something which is killing them, and yet they cannot. Their choice has been removed.’
Mr Sunak also used his Tory conference speech to say 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.