Kids aren’t smoking any more. Not really. A June study by ASH finds the proportion of 11 to 17-year-olds smoking once a week or more to be 3.7%. NHS Digital data, meanwhile, finds only 1% of young people are regular smokers, and less than 2% do even occasionally.
Which makes prime minister Rishi Sunak’s announcement this week of plans to make it an offence for anyone born on or after 1 January 2009 to ever be sold tobacco products a bit of a soggy butt. Finding a 14-year-old who could care less would be near impossible.
For the PM it was a “matter of conscience”. “I want to build a better and brighter future for our children,” Sunak – who late last month watered down a series of planet-saving measures – said, “so that’s why I want to stamp out smoking for good”.
Of course, government policy over the years has helped push down youth smoking rates.
“It’s evidence-based – we saw a fall in youth uptake of smoking in the UK when age of sale was raised from 16 to 18 in 2005, and when it was increased to 21 in the US more recently,” says Nick Hopkinson, professor of respiratory medicine at Imperial College London.
More than double those smoking
Advertising restrictions, prohibition of in-store displays and plain packaging have all helped too. The latest measure certainly won’t hurt the progress.
“Incrementally raising the age of sale of tobacco products is a progressive policy that would undoubtedly impact on population level smoking prevalence, and ultimately improve rates of smoking related disease,” says professor Caitlin Notley, addiction expert at the University of East Anglia.
While not a negative; Sunak’s big talk ignores the neon pink, candy floss-flavoured elephant in the room: disposable vapes.
Around half of 11-17 year olds who have tried vaping have never tried a cigarette, ASH finds.
Despite Tory-aligned media reports that an outright ban on disposables was imminent, it hasn’t yet come to pass.
Battleground of the culture wars
In his speech, Sunak could only indicate the government would “look at” the devices and restricting availability.
A tobacco age of sale law has been enacted already in New Zealand, though it is too soon to determine whether its had much of an impact. Notably, the country has effectively already banned disposable vapes; in August new rules state all vaping devices sold will need to have removable or replaceable batteries.
In any case, “government needs to move swiftly and get this measure in place as soon as possible”, says Hopkinson.
That might be wishful thinking. Although the move is expected to be confirmed in the King’s Speech on 7 November, it still faces opposition from within Conservative party ranks – with Liz Truss reportedly leading the rebellion. There’s also the depressing inevitability it becomes a battleground of the culture wars.
And as with so many of the government’s promises, it too could go up in smoke.