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A smoke-free generation: a vision for a healthier future

Blog post from Councillor David Fothergill on the government's smoke-free ambition and the importance of curbing the devastating health impacts of smoking.

Smoking remains the leading cause of preventable ill health, disability, and death in England. Every day more than 175 people in England die from smoking-related disease, that equates to 64,000 deaths annually. 

No other consumer product kills up to two-thirds of its users. The independent Khan review in 2022 found that, if we do not act, nearly half a million more people will die from smoking by 2030.

In the ongoing effort to curb the devastating health impacts of smoking, the United Kingdom is taking a significant step forward by considering raising the legal age of sale for tobacco products. The proposal to incrementally raise the age of sale of tobacco products has garnered support from MPs, health experts, policymakers, and the public alike. 

I believe this is a progressive policy that would undoubtedly impact on population level smoking prevalence, and ultimately improve rates of smoking related disease. 

Raising the legal age for tobacco purchase has been shown to reduce the likelihood of young people starting to smoke. The UK 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.

Nicotine is a highly addictive substance, and individuals who start smoking at a young age are more likely to develop a lifelong addiction. By restricting access to tobacco products for those born after January 1, 2009, we can help prevent the development of nicotine addiction among the youngest members of our society. 

Data over the last 5 years shows most smokers want to quit, but cannot due to an addiction to nicotine that started in their teenage years. Over 80 per cent of smokers started before they turned 20, many as children. They have had their choices taken away by addiction, and their lives will be harmed and cut short by an addiction they do not want. Three-quarters of current smokers would never have started if they had the choice again 

The great majority of initiation of cigarette use continues to be in the teenage years. 83 per cent of smokers start before the age of 20. People who start smoking under the age of 18 have higher levels of nicotine dependence compared to those starting over 21 and are less likely to make a quit attempt and successfully quit.

To make such a policy effective, strict enforcement measures and penalties for selling tobacco to underage individuals will be necessary. Retailers must be educated about the new regulations, and regular inspections and sting operations can ensure compliance. Penalties for violations should be significant enough to act as a deterrent.

The vision of a smoke-free generation is attainable. However, challenges remain, and the battle against the tobacco industry's influence and deeply ingrained cultural norms is ongoing. With continued efforts, innovative strategies, and political will, England can continue to progress toward a future where smoking is but a relic of the past, and a smoke-free generation becomes a reality.

Councillor David Fothergill, Chairman of LGA Community Wellbeing Board.

A consultation on the proposed actions the UK Government and devolved administrations will take to tackle smoking and youth vaping closes on 6 December 2023. 

They want to hear from:

  • the public - from young people, parents, carers and teachers
  • the retail sector and the independent vaping industry
  • local authorities across the UK
  • clinicians and medical professionals
  • public health stakeholders and academic experts
  • employers and trade unions.