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Is Rishi Sunak’s Plan on Banning Smoking in the UK Valid?

Smoking is undeniably a major damaging habit. It is one of the leading causes of dangerous diseases, primarily cancer, heart and lung diseases and even stroke. 

Hence, to prevent the upcoming generation from being preyed on by such illnesses, the current Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Rishi Sunak, recently announced his plan to completely phase out the sale of cigarettes as the “biggest public health intervention in a generation”.

From a first glimpse, such an attempt sounds appraisable, however, the problem arises when we think about the process in which such a mission will be in practice. Sunak describes that the policy will look after the age at which people can buy tobacco products. The current age for smoking is 18 years, however, this will increase by a year, every year. This would mean that today’s 14-year-olds would never be able to purchase a cigarette in the future. Till now, no country in the world has thought of executing such a motion in action. New Zealand has passed a law to ban smoking, but it would take about another four years before it starts getting into practice, and an adult becomes unable to buy a tobacco product.

However, the issue with Rishi Sunak’s policy, as criticized by the Institute of Economic Affairs and smokers’ lobby group Forest, explains that even though an 18-year-old is not allowed to buy a cigarette, a 19-year-old can. And given the fact that a certain individual of the former age is friends with a certain individual of the latter age, they can easily share a tobacco product between themselves. Sunak plans on working with the devolved nations to introduce his plan all over the United Kingdom, and it can be predicted that in 20 years, the age limit for smoking will be 35. Yet the issue pointed out will not be resolved, as it can be imagined that a couple aged 34 and 35 might be living in the same house and one will be eligible to buy cigarettes and the other won’t be. Hence, the 34-year-old can always reach out to their 35-year-old partner and light up a cigarette.

With the plan of the banning of tobacco products, on one hand, the use of candy-coloured, sweet-flavoured vapes has increased. It is discovered that 3% of today’s 15-year-old kids smoke vapes. They are cheaper than cigarettes and most importantly do not have any age restriction. Vaping oddly looks more innocent than cigarettes and barely seems dangerous, despite the extremely concerning unknown long-term effects and overly high levels of toxic heavy metals in some of the vapes. On a visit to Baxter College by the BBC team, they grabbed a batch of confiscated vapes for analysis as a part of their investigation and uncovered that most of them were illegal with higher than permitted tank sizes and nicotine levels. It was brought to light that vapes, especially the ones designed like highlighter pens, contain 2.4 times the safe exposure level of lead, 9.6 times the safe level of nickel and 6.6 times the safe level of chromium. Research has suggested that vaping among 11 to 17-year-olds had increased from 7.7 per cent in 2022 to 11.6 per cent in 2023. It was also found that vapes were sold to children by local retailers and dealers without checking if they were above or below 18. As per BBC’s investigation, it is found that children using vapes have been inhaling more than double the daily safe amount of lead and nine times the safe amount of nickel.

Rishi Sunak’s policy to raise the age for buying cigarettes by one year every year had to be pushed against libertarian objection and he undoubtedly took several commendable political risks to do the same. His motive is not to just stop teenagers from smoking but to execute the process in a way so that smoking starts to seem like nothing but a bizarre dream from the past. As per Sunak, once the legal age for buying cigarettes hits 35, it will be easier for shops to simply ban the sales of tobacco products instead of asking 34-year-olds for their IDs. The Sources at the Department of Health and Social Care have been keenly looking at the Prime Minister’s policy since the time it was put forward in a government-commission review by former Barnardo’s chief executive Javed Khan in 2022. Khan states that Sunak’s intention behind the policy is not to criminalize the act of smoking but instead the sale of tobacco products by retailers. If smoking becomes a rare activity with time it would be easier to restrict the cigarettes with no extra exclamation or protest.

In Manchester, Sunak has promised for a second time that he would dive deep into vaping as well, with a planned discussion on restricting disposable vapes. The vape market is flooded with an ample number of cheaply made vaping devices, which are most definitely prone to contain illegally high levels of nicotine or harmful amounts of heavy metals. Sunak plans on making the packaging of the vapes boring so that they do not appeal to children. He also plans on removing the various flavours in which vapes are produced and regulating the flavours, for them to taste nothing other than a blister of nicotine gum.

Up until now, the policy is still under review, and it can only be hoped that it does not get overlooked and ignored in the end. Rishi Sunak started with a great notion, to help people get rid of the dangerous habit of smoking and ultimately increase the legal age for smoking up to a limit where anyone born after January 1st, 2009 will never be able to buy tobacco. Rishi Sunak’s proposal will be subject to a vote in the parliament however, this will be a free vote. The Labour Party has stated that “it will not play politics with public health” and that it would “lend” the Prime Minister the number of votes required so that he can get the law passed. However, no particular time or date has been stated for this free vote.

We can only manifest that Rishi Sunak’s vision towards a healthier generation turns out to be true, as it is expected that if his plans are executed properly it will lead up to 1.7 million fewer people smoking by 2075.



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