This page provides responses to frequently asked questions about the proposal set out by the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to raise the age of sale for tobacco by one year, every year, to prevent anyone born on or after 1 January 2009 from legally buying cigarettes in England. For more detail about the rationale and evidence underpinning the Government’s smokefree generation announcement, see the command paper and the ‘need to know’ article.
- Is smoking even a big deal anymore?
- Isn’t vaping the real problem now?
- Only 3% of 14-year-olds smoke. Will this even make a difference?
- Won’t this criminalise young adults?
- Isn’t this just the nanny state taking away people’s free choice to smoke?
- Won’t this become unworkable over time? A 46-year-old will have to ask their 47-year-old friend to buy tobacco for them etc.
- Won’t this be difficult to enforce?
- Won’t this just lead to more people buying tobacco on the black market?
- Will the government lose money in tobacco tax revenue?
- Won't this be controversial with the public?
Is smoking even a big deal anymore?
- Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death and disease. As the Government says in their command paper: “Tobacco is the single most important entirely preventable cause of ill health, disability and death in this country, responsible for 64,000 deaths in England a year. No other consumer product kills up to two-thirds of its users."
- Smoking is also a major cause of health inequalities. The command paper says: “Those who are unemployed, on low incomes or living in areas of deprivation are far more likely to smoke than the general population. Smoking attributable mortality rates are 2.1 times higher in the most deprived local authorities than in the least deprived.”
Isn’t vaping the real problem now?
- Vaping is not risk free, but all the evidence shows it is much less harmful than smoking and is a highly effective tool for helping adult smokers quit.
- However, the rise in youth vaping is concerning and the Government has set out proposals to restrict the availability, branding and marketing of vapes to reduce youth use.
- Between May 2016 and January 2022, the UK medicines regulator (the MHRA) received 257 reports of suspected vaping-related adverse reactions through its Yellow Card reporting scheme for vaping products, 122 of which were considered serious. This compares to around 500,000 smoking-attributable hospital admissions each year.
- For more information about vaping and the regulations needed to reduce youth use, see the ASH response to the Government’s call for evidence on youth vaping. For more information about common misperceptions about vaping see the ASH mythbuster on vaping.
Only 3% of 14-year-olds smoke. Will this even make a difference?
- While only 3% of 14 year olds currently smoke, smoking rates increase with age: an estimated 19% of 18 to 21 year olds currently smoke. Very few people start smoking after they are 21. The only way to make smoking history is to stop people starting in the first place.
- Only around a third of those who start smoking will manage to quit. Of those who don’t quit two thirds will die from smoking.
- In England, raising age of sale from 16 to 18 in 2007 reduced smoking rates among 16- 17-year-olds by 30%. In the US, when the age of sale was increased from 18 to 21, the chance of a person in that age group smoking fell by 39%.
- Government modelling estimates that raising the age of sale each year will mean up to 1.7 million fewer people smoking by 2075. This would also avoid up to 115,000 cases of stroke, heart disease, lung cancer and other lung diseases and save tens of thousands of lives, saving the health and care system billions of pounds.
Won’t this criminalise young adults?
- In England, the legal obligation on retailers is not to sell tobacco to those who are underage. It is also an offence to buy tobacco on behalf of someone underage, also known as ‘proxy purchase’. Unlike with alcohol, there is no offense for those who try to purchase tobacco underage. As is the case now, the new law will not criminalise underage purchase, possession or use of tobacco.
Isn’t this just the nanny state taking away people’s free choice to smoke?
- Those who can currently legally be sold tobacco will still be able to. This is about raising the age of sale for tobacco gradually to prevent the next generation becoming hooked to a uniquely harmful and addictive product which kills over half of all long-term users.
- Smoking is not a matter of free choice. Addiction deprives people of choice: two in three people who try one cigarette going on to become daily smokers, most of whom will regret ever starting.
- Over four in five smokers became addicted to smoking before they turned 20, most as children. Once addicted, on average it takes 30 attempts to quit smoking, and only around one in ten smokers a year manage to quit.
Won’t this become unworkable over time? A 46-year-old will have to ask their 47-year-old friend to buy tobacco for them etc.
- This policy is part of a vision to end the harms from smoking in this country for good.
- Adults impacted by this measure will never have been able to purchase tobacco legally and as a result, will be much less likely to be long-term smokers. Government modelling suggests that within 3 to 10 years of implementation, smoking rates among 14 to 30- year-olds could be half of current rates (from 13% down to 6-7%) and close to 0% as early as 2040. This means that there will be very few people impacted by this measure who are still smoking in their 30s and 40s.
- Raising the age of sale is important for ensuring fewer people become addicted to smoking in the first place but it needs to be combined with measures to help existing smokers quit. This is why the Government has also announced a major increase in funding for stop smoking activity and public awareness campaigns; financial incentives for pregnant smokers; and a national vaping ‘swap-to-stop’ scheme to help 1 million smokers quit. This is in addition to the stop smoking support being rolled out in the NHS for smokers in hospital.
Won’t this be difficult to enforce?
- Increases in the age of sale have been implemented in the UK and around the world with few problems. This did not cause major enforcement issues and led to declines in smoking in the age-groups affected.
- It is often said by the tobacco industry and their proxies that new regulations will be difficult to enforce. This was a key criticism of the ban in public places when it was first proposed. However, once it came into force compliance was 97% and it was largely self-enforcing. This is because the legislation was preceded by a lengthy public debate which increased awareness and support among the public and the hospitality industry. No-one would now consider repealing the law on smoking in public places.
- This is why it is important to engage both young people and retailers with the consultation and public debate as they are the main groups impacted by this measure.
- There is already much stronger public support for raising the age of sale than there was for the ban on smoking in pubs and clubs when it was first introduced, with 63% of the public in favour vs only 24% opposed.
- Enforcement will be handled by trading standards, not the police.
Won’t this just lead to more people buying tobacco on the black market?
- Raising the age of sale will have a gradual impact over time, so is unlikely to significantly impact the black market. When the tobacco age of sale increased from 16 to 18 in 2007 it had no impact on black market sales.
- Strong enforcement is crucial for addressing the black market. The introduction of tough anti-smoking policies such as smokefree laws in 2007 and plain cigarette packs in 2015 did not lead to an increase in illicit sales because the UK has strong enforcement. This has led to the black market for cigarettes shrinking from 22% of the market in 2000 to 11% in 2022.
- One of the most effective ways of reducing demand for illicit tobacco is to encourage more people to quit smoking.
Will the government lose money in tobacco tax revenue?
- No. Currently the Treasury receives around £10 billion income from taxes on tobacco products. This is dwarfed by the direct cost of smoking to the public finances of £21 billion each year, resulting from NHS and social care costs, social security payments and tax loss. Reducing smoking rates will directly benefit the public finances as well as saving tens of thousands of lives.
Won’t this be controversial with the public?
- Raising the age of sale to create a smokefree generation is supported by 63% of the public, with only 24% opposed. This includes majority support from voters of the main political parties (Con 77%, Lab 69%, Lib Dem 63%).(YouGov poll for the Times, page 5)
- Most parents, including most smokers, don’t want their children to become addicted to smoking. The main group opposed to this will be the tobacco industry and their allies.