Government plans will introduce a law to increase the legal age to buy cigarettes year on year to eventually phase out the habit, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has announced.
Under the law, children who turn 14 this year – and those younger – would be prevented from ever being legally sold cigarettes in England.
Announced during his Tory conference keynote speech (4 October), Mr Sunak said the change to the law would be subject to a vote in parliament, with Conservative MPs allowed a free vote.
The Government also said it would double the current funding for stop smoking services, with £70m a year to expand local services.
Mr Sunak said the decision was one which would tackle the leading cause of preventable illness and death globally.
Smoking causes around 64,000 cancer deaths in England and hold a cost of around £17bn a year.
However health leaders have pointed to the speed at which obesity is fast overtaking smoking as the leading cause of preventable deaths, however.
Last year, the Government cut £100m from weight management services in England.
Chief executive of the NHS Confederation, Matthew Taylor, said: ‘Obesity is fast overtaking smoking as the number one cause of preventable death in England, but public health grants have been cut by 26% on a real-terms per person basis since 2015/16.
‘This has harmed the ability of local authorities to adequately support smoking cessation, drug and alcohol, and sexual health services across the country. Leaders are clear these levels of funding must be restored locally and that the next government must take the bull by the horns with more decisive national interventions that will help people to live healthier lives.’
A Health Foundation senior policy fellow, Adam Briggs, said: ‘Smoking causes around 70,000 deaths and 500,000 hospital admissions in England annually and is the leading cause of differences in life expectancy between the most and least deprived communities.’
He added: ‘The government should learn from tobacco policy and take bolder steps to prevent poor health from other leading risk factors such as alcohol and junk food. Meaningful long-term change will only be possible if these actions are part of a coordinated cross-government strategy for health that ensures everyone has the basic building blocks of good health, such as good quality housing, secure employment, and high-quality education.’
And the Association of Directors of Public Health’s interim president, Greg Fell, said: ‘Most smokers start young, regret they started and try to quit multiple times and what this historic package of measures will do, is prevent our children and young people from ever becoming addicted, prevent ill-health and save lives.
‘The plans also promise extra funding for public health and enforcement which will help local authorities to crack down on illegal sales, as well as provide much-needed resources for stop smoking services.’
Earlier this year, the Government was told to consider bringing restrictions on marketing and packing for vapes in line with those on tobacco products to tackle their increased use among children.