Wednesday Debate: What do you think of Governments’ plans to ban a generation from buying cigarettes?

It’s Summer 2049. Peter and his friend Mark are doing their weekly shop in Morrisons.

They stop at the cigarette kiosk on the way out. Peter, born on 31 December 2008, shows his compulsory ID card to prove that he is old enough to buy tobacco products. Mark, born just a day later has never been legally allowed to buy them. Instead, he gets them from various sources, including a dodgy bloke down the pub. Every year, he hires a van and hops over to France to fill it up with an unhealthy supply to keep him going for a few months, paying duty to the French Government rather than the UK Government.

All of this assumes, of course, that we aren’t doing our shopping via Elon Musk’s chips implanted in our brains, but never mind.

In a rare move, this week Governments across the UK announced a plan to prohibit anyone born after 1 January 2009 from ever buying cigarettes. I don’t think any of us think it is ok for a 15 year old to buy cigarettes. But do we really want a situation where 40 year old Mark is legally prevented from doing what 40 year old Peter does legally?

Health charities and organisations are delighted at the Government’s plans. Of course they are, because reducing smoking is obviously going to improve public health. They are doing their job.

The British Heart Foundation’s Chief Executive, on their website, said:

When we have known for many decades that smoking kills, it is utterly unacceptable that smoking continues to take so many lives, causing at least 15,000 deaths from cardiovascular disease every year across the UK.

“On top of this, smoking is a significant driver of health inequalities, disproportionately affecting the health of the poorest in society.

“Tough measures are needed to put a stop to this ongoing heartbreak, and we welcome the UK Government’s bold proposal to create a smoke-free generation by raising the age of sale for tobacco every year.

“It’s right that the Government is taking action to make vaping less appealing. Children and people who have never smoked should never start vaping, which is why we need effective measures that make it harder for young people to buy vapes in the first place.

“There is clear public support for this Bill and we now urge every MP to support this once-in-a-generation legislation when it is brought to the UK Parliament. We hope to see this policy adopted by administrations across the UK.

So what should the Liberal Democrats be saying about this? As a liberal party we hold personal freedom for adults to do things, even if they harm themselves, as a core value. I have to say that I’m surprised that the proposals put forward by three Governments who spend most of their time rolling their eyes at each other have been accepted with so little controversy. Only a few voices, such as our controversial ex Prime Minister Liz Truss, have spoken out, calling the measures “un-Conservative.”

This is one of these issues where you can use liberal principles to reach either conclusion in the debate. You can argue that the health of a generation is more important and that smoking rarely harms just the person doing it and that this measure is important to stop deaths which are entirely preventable.

On the other hand, we know that prohibition rarely works. In the example above, Mark has found ways of obtaining his cigarettes. What is likely to happen is that there will be a flourishing underground market in tobacco products for those who don’t or can’t head across to Europe to replenish their supplies.

As a party, we have long argued for the decriminalisation of Cannabis. Surely supporting this measure would be inconsistent.

Our reaction to the Conservatives’ voter ID legislation was, rightly, “How very dare you?” How can we then say that people need to produce proof of their age to buy 20 Benson and Hedges?

And surely it won’t be long before someone suggests that compulsory ID cards are the only way to be sure that only the “right” group of 40 year olds can buy their cigarettes.

For full disclosure purposes, I smoked thousands of cigarettes over 12 years in the 80s and 90s. I enjoyed virtually every single one of them. A positive pregnancy test made me give up immediately and I never re-started, though on a night out I will often go stand downwind of the smokers outside. I have so far not been tempted to take just one because I don’t want to be back there.

The other part of the plan to reduce nicotine addiction is to ban disposable vapes which are so often marketed at young people, with their bright packaging and delicious flavours. There doesn’t seem to be much love for these products and there are strong reasons for banning them, not least the blight they are on our environment and the dangers that discarded ones pose to dogs. Personally, I could live with that proposal.

I do think that reducing smoking is a good thing. I was absolutely in favour of the legislation banning smoking in public places. It’s a great thing that people under 25 have never experienced being in a smoky pub or restaurant in this country. It’s meant that people with conditions like Asthma can go out without fear. I don’t mind making cigarettes more difficult or expensive to get. But I think that the Governments’ proposals are a step too far. Adults, all adults, should be free to do and buy what they like so long as it doesn’t harm others and it seems strange that one 40 year old can buy cigarettes and another can’t. How can that be liberal?

But there is a wide range of views on this, even in the party. So what do you think?

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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48 Comments

  • Much as I am not a big fan of the tobacco industry and their tactics but I do hare Caron’s view. Creating 2 classes of adult, just seems plain wrong to me. I would instead support tactics that increase the challenge of easy access to tobacco for all adults, and restricting companies/brands found to be marketing to kids in other countries.

  • Martin Gray 31st Jan '24 - 9:51am

    Excellent post Caron… Exactly spot on.
    It will create a ridiculous situation where a middle aged individual can smoke a cig in the privacy of their home while a partner of a few months younger would be breaking the law . And while many in the party support decriminalisation of Cannabis – they’d be ok with people rolling a spliff ! …We all understand the harm of tobacco – but it must be a personal choice – anything other would be illiberal & unenforceable…A complete waste of time & a black market paradise..

  • Steve Trevethan 31st Jan '24 - 10:23am

    Charge the tobacco companies for the health costs of smoking?

  • Simon Mcgrath 31st Jan '24 - 10:39am
  • I’m uncomfortable with Emily Maitlis’ claim that the Liberal Democrats support this proposal from the government – according to the motion passed as amended on this subject by Conference as recently as September, while we support a ban on disposable vapes for a variety of reasons, there is no mention of a rolling ban on smoking of the sort proposed. I think had that proposal been in the motion or an amendment, the debate in Bournemouth would have taken a very different turn.
    https://www.libdems.org.uk/conference/motions/autumn-2023/f17

  • Nigel hunter 31st Jan '24 - 11:05am

    New Zealand has dropped tge measure cos it hit sales from corner shops. Vapes have been banned for the young. Today I hear about campaign against children having mobile phones. Banning things just shoves it underground. It make us a very unfree society.

  • Both policies are illiberal and illogical – and it’s disappointing that our party has nothing to say and will likely vote for both.

    New Zealand has cancelled its planned tobacco ban, so it’s just us pressing ahead with it now.

    As for vaping – the one actual public health success of the past decade and we’re going to reverse it. There is no health argument for doing so – study after study has found them to be 95% less harmful than cigarettes. E-liquid ingredients and their impact on the body are well understood, yet the public is wildly misinformed. The liberal case should be that vapes should be treated as a normal adult consumer product.

    Vapes are not marketed at children – it keeps being claimed but it’s simply not true. Adults like nice colours and flavours too. Regardless, under-18s are already banned from buying them. If we don’t want under-18s to use them, then we should simply enforce existing laws. It isn’t difficult. The problem is unscrupulous retailers and a black market in illegal vapes – which seems likely to get worse rather than go away under a disposable vapes ban (just see Australia).

    The impact of disposable vapes on the environment is also vastly overstated – and if their alleged impact was applied consistently it would mean banning a whole lot of other products too. An industry-wide deposit return scheme should be considered, or further regulation on how disposable vapes are made – not a ban.

  • Steve Trevethan 31st Jan '24 - 11:42am

    Thanks for the tobacco tax duty info!

    Couldn’t see reference to additional tax costs to cover negative health effects costs.

    Might rationing, other than by price be an option?

  • Caron, I would question your assertion that prohibition doesn’t work: Even if some people find ways to get around bans on things they like to do, the bans normally do reduce the level of whatever the activity is, and help to make it less socially acceptable.

    Also, you say, “As a liberal party we hold personal freedom for adults to do things” but given that we know that cigarette smoke – like other drugs – contains highly physically addictive substances, is the decision of an addicted smoker to have another cigarette really a free choice in the first place?

  • Steve Trêvethan 31st Jan '24 - 12:30pm

    Might we be in danger of promoting « Freedom To » when. in this case, « Freedom From » is a safer, kinder option?

  • Liberals are against making things either compulsory or forbidden, as far as possible.
    Clearly Taxes have to be compulsory & Murder forbidden.

    The Government are mixing up two very different things – Smoking & Vaping. We have been, as a Society successfully reducing Smoking, partly by encouraging Vaping.
    Single-use Vapes should be banned for obvious environmental reasons but, if anything, we should be encouraging Vaping among the Young – Habits start early & are hard to shift.
    Libdems should loudly oppose any Ban on Smoking – its the whole “War on drugs” stupidity all over again.

  • Patrick Hadfield 31st Jan '24 - 12:58pm

    An interesting discussion, which rightly raises contradictory attitudes.

    Personally I would welcome banning tobacco *and* decriminalising cannabis. Smokers of neither substance should be turned into criminals!

    I think the comparison to compulsory seatbelts may be illuminating here: introduced in 1983, I doubt few today would argue against them. Legal measures are regularly applied to stop people injuring themselves, such as trespassing on railway lines.

    But banning things is illiberal. So, yeah, contradictory views!

  • Is it still our policy to legalize cannabis? It would seem incredibly hypocritical for us to support banning cigarettes at the same time.

  • Graham Jeffs 31st Jan '24 - 1:12pm

    How typical that banning vaping for the young gets snagged on a ban on smoking in general.

    The former is absolutely right. The latter – undesirable as smoking may be – is absurd unless it’s a total ban. And that has further ramifications.

    Why are we unable as a party to differentiate between these two issues – and say so!

    There is a danger that the general smoking issue is going to devalue the proposed action in respect of vaping.

  • Mick Taylor 31st Jan '24 - 1:16pm

    Liberals are generally in favour of liberty that does no harm to anyone else. (JS Mill ‘On Liberty’)
    People who wish to shorten their lives and make their health worse are surely entitled to do so, provided it doesn’t cause anyone else to suffer the consequences of their actions. [Mind, there may be a problem if smokers live alongside non-smokers and don’t take their fags into the garden] As long as smokers carry on their disgusting practices in private that’s fine. Anywhere near me is definitely NOT OK. Same with vaping, NOT NEAR ME.
    Whoever something is forbidden or rationed, a black market is created. Viz. soft and hard drugs, where a ban has led to the creation of vicious criminal gangs who sell them for much cash without regard to the consequences. Consider also the spies who became wealthy during the world wars supplying goods on the black market.
    The need is not to ban cigarettes or vapes but to make their use socially unacceptable. As a friend of mine regularly said “If you prefer your cigarettes to my company, don’t bother calling”.

  • Nom de Plume 31st Jan '24 - 1:27pm

    Phasing out the selling of cigarettes is an excellent idea.
    Just as they were doing in New Zealand until the new government stopped the policy, for political reasons. Afterwards classify it as an illegal drug. Better late than never from the Tories. Maybe the EU will catch up.

  • “It’s Summer 2049. Peter and his friend Mark are doing their weekly shop in Morrisons”.

    Surely a majority Lib Dem Government will have been elected by then and found a fair way to alleviate the problem.

  • Brandon Masih 31st Jan '24 - 1:51pm

    @Martin & David cannabis legalisation is still party policy that’s correct.

    Broadly my thoughts on the smokefree generation policy is that I’m not sure it is a policy that will be effective – whilst yes it is effectively moving tobacco to a more restricted age market after 2027, I’m not sure that is very effective given the sheer size of illicit tobacco sales and avoidance on duties (it is relatively easy to order cheaper cigarettes from Europe). It is also not prohibition as of such, it is an effective prohibition for a far flung future sure, and it doesn’t make it any less illiberal, but its framing is much more akin to the convergence for psychoactive substances to be treated like decriminalisation- no penalty for purchasing (caveat, Scotland’s plans to have civil? penalties if someone born after purchases) or possessing but penalties for distribution. But like I said I’m not sure this would affect take up of smoking much – it’s already dropping, and over regulation of refill vape flavours might hamper future efforts for tobacco cessation.

    (Will need to split over multiple comments sorry.)

  • Brandon Masih 31st Jan '24 - 1:53pm

    Indeed it misses the other key aspect that was in NZ’s plan, that is the progressive denicotinisation of marketed tobacco to non addictive levels, that was the aspect meant to drive down tobacco uptake rather than the age policy. There might be disagreement on how comprehensive that modelling was, and certainly we can’t mirror modelling from NZ because its trade routes are fairly different from our own, given their connections are to Australia and Pacific islands making illicit tobacco trade spiking harder; so arguably we’d need to craft our approach differently. We have indeed done so, our smokefree generation policy is a misnomer, it is a tobaccofree generation policy. NZ’s policy intended for it to only cover combustible tobacco products (fairly explicitly), ours is explicit in covering all tobacco products (and cigarette papers) because there’s a uniform age restriction on all of them in the children and young persons act, no further motivation has been given on balancing harms than maintaining this link. Non-combustible tobacco products, whilst not nearly as safe as other nicotine products, are vital components of harm reduction for those using smoked tobacco, and part of the approach to reduce smoking – incidentally this is why it’s striking even with leaving the EU DHSC and gov refuse to consider legalisation and regulation of Swedish snus as an aspect to this. It is selling the policy as tackling smoking but in reality it is aiming to eliminate tobacco long term itself, which is a clear distinction.

  • Brandon Masih 31st Jan '24 - 1:54pm

    We should call out on the motivations and probably oppose the policy overall, but I doubt that will be explicit from our parliamentary party in fear that we may be reported as pro-tobacco. Incidentally I am bringing it up for YL conference next weekend (as part of a wider drug policy discussion) and hope to use that as something they can pressure/bring to debate with federal party conference in future.

    (Idk if this will be posted out of order depending on approval)

  • Leon Duveen 31st Jan '24 - 2:28pm

    I detest smoking & would like it banned from all public places (even outdoors) as too many smokers don’t seem to care about blowing the foul fumes of their obnoxious habit towards me.
    Having said that, the proposed escalating ban on who old you have to be to legally ban the purchase of cigarettes is ludicrous. Will smokers have to carry ID with them to prove their age? How will you stop the illegal trade (to all ages) in cigarettes?
    Far better to simply increase the duty on cigarettes and size of the graphic health warnings, better health education in schools and a total ban on smoking (including vapes & non-tobacco) cigarettes in public spaces.

  • I think on balance, the New Zealand style age-based ban is – for the time being – sensible: It means that it will rightly never be legal for tobacco companies to get future generations trapped into cigarette addiction, while also allowing people who are already legally addicted to continue to smoke. As with any policy area, there are no perfect options, but this sets a good balance.

    Yes, if you project it 25 years into the future, as Caron has done with her 2049 scenario, it looks silly: But does anyone seriously imagine we’ll introduce the ban and then never make any further changes to the law for another 25 years? Just look at how much the situation and opinion and the law around smoking has changed since 1998! The proposed ban is a good solution for today’s situation. Doubtless, once introduced, it’ll be revised in the future to match whatever circumstances exist in – say – 10 years’ time, as smoking becomes less and less socially acceptable.

  • Mick Taylor 31st Jan '24 - 4:11pm

    Spivs not spies. B….y predictive text!

  • Nom de Plume 31st Jan '24 - 4:33pm

    Guns kill. Smoking kills slowly, at high cost to society. Guns need to be controlled. Smoking needs to be eliminated. There is no liberty in being chronically ill.

  • Chris Moore 31st Jan '24 - 5:54pm

    I know several adults who have never recovered from cannabis induced psychosis when in their teens. Two are permanently disabled – in and out of psychiatric institutions, one sometimes manages to work, but is volatile and prone to paranoia.

    I’m not in favour of being blase about cannabis.

  • Martin Gray 31st Jan '24 - 6:58pm

    To those who think it’s a good idea – just how do you think it’s going to be enforced ? As of now when youngsters want cigarettes they’ll be endless proxy sales – but this time a smoker in his 30s – getting a smoker in his fifties to purchase some fags.
    It’s unenforceable & a complete waste of police time .
    Middle aged and having to carry a passport to bargain booze …!!!

  • Nom de Plume 31st Jan '24 - 7:38pm

    If Mark is stupid enough to start smoking when he knows he will not be able to buy cigarettes in the UK he will either have to travel to France regularly, or give up smoking. Younger generations will not be smoking. Lack of access, even, within a few years, from proxies. Unless said proxies start behaving like street corner drug dealers.

  • @Martin Gray: How is it going to be enforced? I would expect, the same way that we enforce the current age restrictions on buying tobacco products!

  • Caron is absolutely right – you cannot criminalise the consumption of tobacco whilst de-criminalising the consumption of cannabis and assert you have a coherent set of policies.

  • Martin Gray 1st Feb '24 - 3:23am

    @Simon… Considering the number of youngsters I see vaping – age restriction is a minor hurdle that make proxy sales the norm – same as tobacco products.
    You can supplant the word ciggerette in your question.
    “have another cigarette really a free choice in the first place” have another drink , have another bet etc – it comes across as a middle class we know better than the working man who enjoys a fag a drink or a bet ..
    Can you imagine a middle aged person being asked for age ID while having a fag in the street by some young copper ? Ridiculous….

  • Sandy Leslie 1st Feb '24 - 8:42am

    Any substance which is banned and has a demand will be supplied by criminals.

  • Steve Trevethan 1st Feb '24 - 10:28am

    Why might it be that there are over 30 comments on possible smoking legislation and 2 on mental health?

  • It’s an illiberal and irrelevant proposal, which our MPs should oppose but are both too right-on and too fearful of criticism to do so.

    To quote the former Director of ASH UK:
    “The smoke-free generation (SFG) proposal is a phony solution to smoking, which has already almost vanished in the population the proposal applies to. In 2021, only 3% of 15-year-olds were regular smokers – probably fewer now, thanks to vaping. SFG distracts from addressing the *stock* of adults who smoke born before 2009. Adults are the critical at-risk population. For them, a mixture of vaping (including disposables), pouches, snus and heated tobacco backed by sensible supply and marketing regulation and honest communications about risk would be the most direct way to address the real problem and achieve the 2030 smoke-free goal. SFG will do nothing – and provides a distraction from doing the right thing.”

    Banning disposables takes what stop-smoking counsellors hold to be an important part of their ‘toolkit’ away. Ditto banning too many flavours: few quitters want to replace tobacco-tasting nicotine from cigarettes with tobacco-tasting nicotine from vapes, whatever bien-pensant never-smoker policymakers might wish to think. And while no-one wants under-18s to use disposables, the law already forbids retailers to sell to them. If that isn’t being enforced, why does the Government think it has any better chance of enforcing a total ban on the sub-category?

    Why we are even thinking of voting for this ‘legacy’ nonsense from Sunak, I cannot imagine

  • Glenda Kelly 1st Feb '24 - 11:36am

    Advocating the prohibitiion of smoking and legalisation of the use of cannabis may seem to be a totally illogical position to take , but the external costs incurred by cigarette smoking are massively greater than those of cannabis use, even at the level of the individual and, in my opinion, justify the two seemingly contradictory views. I am not a fan of cannabis use, but to directly compare the two oversimplifies the issues.

  • @Steve Trevethan: Why are there 30 comments here but only 2 on mental health? I would imagine it’s because this smoking article is on a controversial topic, with members having lots of different opinions on the subject, whereas almost no-one disagrees with what was written in the mental health article. Controversy and disagreement is what usually brings out the most stimulating discussion 😉

  • Might I suggest that anyone who thinks banning dangerous things is ineffective take a look at the statistics on deaths smoking vs illegal drugs: According to the NHS, smoking (legal) kills over 76 000 people a year in the UK (https://www.nhs.uk/common-health-questions/lifestyle/what-are-the-health-risks-of-smoking/). On the other hand, put every illegal drug together and between them they killed just 4900 people in 2022 (https://www.nhs.uk/common-health-questions/lifestyle/what-are-the-health-risks-of-smoking/, England and Wales only, but less than a 10th as many deaths). That very clearly says that banning things does save a lot of lives!

    Or if you want another example, compare deaths from guns in the UK (illegal) with deaths from guns in the USA (legal).

  • Brandon Masih 1st Feb '24 - 2:30pm

    @Simon R, should probably consider in where the harms arise from smoking tobacco vs the consumption of illicit psychoactive substances. The deaths from the former are from long term use, and no one is suggesting that we don’t take action to reduce addiction. The latters deaths are due a combination of different factors, whether it be lack of knowledge of what is contained in the drugs sourced, where adulation may increase risks, or different qualities might make relapse more risky, or whether there’s not as wide understanding of polydrug use interactions. You could not make a genuine comparison on whether prohibition here is reducing deaths as you’d be comparing different drugs of various harm profiles, some of which are from the fact they’re illegal as is, and that harm profile for many would still be less so that smoked tobacco. Also drug death stats are based on presence of drugs after death, rather than long term use as smoking deaths are primarily (people aren’t dying from a tobacco overdose) so the comparison isn’t particularly great here if you want to make a point for prohibition.

  • Elizabeth Pears 1st Feb '24 - 2:35pm

    As someone who grew up in a home with parents who smoked, I’m in favour of this legislation. It’s not illiberal to want to prevent harm. In the past people started smoking when cigarettes were easily available and their peers were doing it. The ban on smoking in public spaces has turned it into something far less attractive, it’s not as social and it has to be done outside in the cold. Making smoking less easy and attractive has been very effective in cutting the number of smokers. Now it’s time for us to take the next step.

  • Jenny Barnes 1st Feb '24 - 3:47pm

    It’s a daft policy. As is criminalisation of recreational drug use. Criminalise drugs , and the price goes up, criminals and violence moves in, and usage stays much the same. Also, absent regulation, strengths and adulteration can vary wildly, for instance fentanyl – much more potent and cheaper – getting added to heroin to give a bigger hit. How do we know? Prohibition of alcohol in the USA demonstrated all these effects.
    It’s reasonable to ban things that cause externalities – or tax to deal with the costs, and I would include in that cigarette butts and disposable vapes littering. In my book it’s not liberal for the state to stop someone doing things that don’t affect anyone else.

  • Mick Taylor 1st Feb '24 - 5:14pm

    The problem Ms Barnes is that there are almost no circumstances where cigarette smoking doesn’t affect someone else, and often they don’t want to breath in second hand smoke but have no choice.

  • Jenny Barnes 2nd Feb '24 - 9:48am

    @ mick
    Well, ban the circumstances where people have to breathe 2nd had smoke eg pubs, homes with children, tube trains etc… oh, we already did.

  • I support the ban on disposable vapes on environmental as well as health grounds. Getting rid of some of the flavours aimed at teens is also reasonable.

    I’m unsure about the smoking age limit thing for reasons already covered. I support the legalisation and regulation of cannabis products, albeit with the expectation it would start off still fairly restrictive and come with some decent public health messaging, rather than mirroring the current case with tobacco.

    I do agree that prohibition can be dangerous, but we already ban lots of poisons, so I’m not too bothered. However, lumping it together with the disposable vaping ban confuses issues.

    It’s claimed banning disposable vapes would encourage the black market, but if everyone knows any disposable vape in the country is dodgy, people will be more wary of buying from friends etc.

  • I completely support the ban because cigarettes are addictive and so take away freedom. Instead they compel you to spend a lot of money of something you no longer want to do (6 out of 7 smokers wish they had never started). I have written up how to make it work: https://timleunig.substack.com/p/smoking

  • Martin Gray 4th Feb '24 - 11:08am

    @Tim Leunig….Shouldn’t have to subscribe to your sub stack to read your article…Gambling , Alcohol, Shopping can all be an addiction. As a smoker and like a bet + the odd pint or two – I can assure you I don’t feel that my freedom is in anyway compromised in engaging in all three pastimes …I enjoy each and every ciggerette a consume . Some people won’t be happy unless we’re all sat at home eating chick peas and knitting blankets..

  • Mary Fulton 5th Feb '24 - 6:49pm

    The way forward must be to have clear but different laws about purchase and consumption. Let people purchase tobacco or any other currently illegal drug, but criminalise the consumption of those products anywhere except in private homes, and only when there is no one under the age of 18 present.

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