It’s a historic week for the tobacco trade, with the House of Commons overwhelmingly voting in favour of Rishi Sunak’s flagship generational smoking ban by 383 votes to 67 (or being “forced through” despite fierce resistance from mutinous ministers and backbenchers according to some of the media) in its first reading.

But notwithstanding arguments over freedom of choice, what are the implications for the trade? Will the bill drive more illicit sales, as the tobacco lobby argues? And how are retailers supposed to distinguish between, say, a 28-year-old and a 29-year-old, with the prospect of £100 on-the-spot fines for retailers who flout the law?

Let’s start with illicit sales. No question the pandemic showed how much money the tobacco trade can make for the Treasury in a more controlled market. And in theory a prohibition-style smoking ban for the next generation will boost the burgeoning black market still further. But more than anything it’s the exorbitant price (more than £15 for a pack of 20!) that is driving tobacco sales underground, and on top of the continual hikes in duty there’s an extra one-off increase in tobacco duty coming down the tracks in 2026.

And let’s be clear. This is not the outright smoking ban that New Zealand announced and subsequently rowed back from. The law won’t prevent a single adult who currently smokes from buying fags. Ever. This is about future smokers. And youth smoking is already in huge decline. Only 1% of young smokers (11 to 17-year-olds) do so regularly, and less than 2% do so even occasionally [NHS]. Smoking just isn’t cool any more among Gen Z. So this law will restrict access to young people to a product they are already turning their backs on.

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The other issue is around policing. And adding to the complexity is that the Tobacco & Vapes bill is currently limited to England. But for the same reason I’m not convinced that retailers will find it that difficult to navigate the ban. Even assuming the legislation kick in as intended in 2027, confusion over who retailers can and can’t sell to won’t be a problem for a good few years after that, as Challenge 25 is already the norm. Add 25 to 2009 and you get to 2034 – 10 years from now – and the new law will have been up and running for seven years. Plenty of time for retailers and potential customers to get used to the idea (and plenty of time for smoking rates to fall still further of course).

Of course, some retailers are worried, but plenty are backing the bill, not just on the grounds of conscience, but because, like young people today, they’re moving on. And the real worry for most retailers won’t be about the generational smoking ban. It’s what happens to vaping. That’s how the kids are getting their tobacco kicks these days. And in the convenience trade in particular, soaring sales of disposable vapes have been a massive boon. ACS research estimates their sales value in the sector is around £2.2bn, with a typical margin of 45%. Meanwhile tobacco is no longer even a top 10 category in convenience, accounting for 7% of purchases in 2023, down from 8% in 2022, according to Lumina’s Tracking Convenience programme.

As such, the simultaneous ban on disposable vapes, the restrictions on flavours, the insistence on “plainer, less visually appealing” packaging, and the new duty on vaping, represents a far greater threat surely to future sales and profits. And tobacco companies should focus their efforts there. They have been talking a good game for years now about smoke-free futures or reduced risk, next-gen products. What this law does is make them live up to it. Especially when considering the next generation, that’s where their priorities should lie.