A no smoking sign hung on a post.

Proposed smoking ban would improve UK public health – but tobacco industry opposition could be a major roadblock

In his speech on Tuesday, King Charles III outlined what measures the government plans to introduce to cut smoking rates and create a smoke-free generation in England.

Among the measures the government hopes to introduce as part of its new tobacco and vapes bill are plans to restrict sales of e-cigarettes so they’re less accessible to children and young people, as well as exploring the possibility of a new duty on vapes.

But perhaps the most notable of these measures are plans to introduce a so-called “generational” smoking ban. Current legal smokers would be unaffected but, if the legislation came into force as planned, it would mean that from 2027 anyone aged 14 or under will never be able to legally buy a cigarette.

Prime minister Rishi Sunak claims that not only would eradicating smoking save £17 billion per year, it would also reduce pressure on the NHS. Over roughly the last decade, 25%-31% of all hospital admissions were from conditions directly caused by smoking – such as respiratory and circulatory diseases, and cancers.

Smoking is also the leading cause of preventable death and illness in the UK – accounting for around 64,000 deaths each year. Smoking even just one cigarette a day can double a person’s risk of dying from heart disease or stroke.

It’s clear a smoking ban could have many potential economic and public health benefits. But whether such a ban actually comes to fruition is uncertain – and the tobacco industry will probably do as much as it can to ensure this policy never comes to pass.

Smoke-free generation

The proposed smoking ban is being introduced as part of the government’s efforts to phase out smoking and make England smoke-free by 2030. If this plan goes through, it would make England the second country in the world to introduce such a ban. Sunak reportedly wants to work with the UK’s devolved governments to eventually introduce the ban across the rest of the country.

New Zealand was the first country to successfully implement a generational smoking ban in January 2023. This means that no one born after January 1, 2009 will ever be legally allowed to purchase cigarettes in New Zealand.

It’s still too early to know exactly what benefits this policy will have on public health. But computer modelling suggests that a well-enforced effort would halve smoking rates within 10-15 years after the ban is implemented.

In the UK’s case, the government claims this policy would be the “most significant public health intervention in a generation, saving tens of thousands of lives” – and that it has wide support from public health voices.

But for years the tobacco industry has opposed virtually every tobacco control policy that has been proposed – including smoke-free public places and standardised tobacco packaging. It should come as no surprise then that the industry could be a major roadblock in the government’s plans to implement a smoking ban.

Research by the Tobacco Control Research Group at the University of Bath, of which we’re members, has highlighted the techniques the tobacco industry uses to undermine such policies. One main strategy they have been accused of using is spreading a false narrative about the effect tobacco control policies will have on society and the economy.

This narrative is spread using a number of techniques – including producing skewed evidence, sometimes by third parties with undisclosed industry links, and bringing forward litigation. Tobacco industry actors have previously denied interfering in policy change.

A no smoking sign hung on a post.
New Zealand is the first country in the world to introduce a generational smoking ban.
totojang1977/ Shutterstock

Previous attempts to create tobacco-free generations have been blocked using such techniques.

For example, in 2019 the Philippine Tobacco Institute, which represents multiple tobacco companies, filed two court cases challenging the city government of Balanga in the Philippines.

The city was hoping to introduce regulations which would prevent the legal sale of tobacco products to residents born on or after January 1, 2000. However, the court case went in the industry’s favour – and so the regulation was never implemented.

In the US state of Massachusetts, the town of Brookline is also facing a similar battle in the state’s Supreme Judicial Court.

The town was hoping to introduce the same policy measure, which would prevent legal sale of tobacco or cigarettes to anyone born after January 1, 2000. This lawsuit was brought to court by local shops whose businesses benefit from selling tobacco.

Litigation was not brought against New Zealand for its generational ban. Only time will tell if this will be the case for the UK, too.

Either way, industry arguments have already appeared in UK media following coverage of the government’s plans. For example, Forest – a smoker’s rights group which receives funding from tobacco companies – has been quoted in one UK publication, referring to the proposal as “desperate” and stating that it “won’t work”. Their industry links weren’t mentioned in the article.

It’s crucial that any industry attempts to delay, weaken or scrap the policy are strongly resisted. One way to help achieve this is for the UK to adhere to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control – an international treaty signed by the UK which requires health policy be protected from the vested interest of the tobacco industry.

There’s also a role to be played by the media to ensure transparency and full disclosure in their coverage of the policy so that when industry-affiliated voices comment, they are clearly identified as such.

Beyond pressure from industry, another potential roadblock for the policy is resourcing to enforce the policy. The policy also stands to be most successful when not viewed in isolation. Other stop smoking measures will continue to have a role to play, given that many current smokers will not be affected by the legislation.

The Conversation

Phil Chamberlain is a member of the Tobacco Control Research Group (TCRG) which is part of the global tobacco industry watchdog STOP, funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies. For a list of recent and current research funding within the TCRG, see: https://www.bath.ac.uk/corporate-information/tobacco-control-research-group-research-projects/

Allen Gallagher is a member of the Tobacco Control Research Group (TCRG) which is part of the global tobacco industry watchdog STOP, funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies. For a list of recent and current research funding within the TCRG, see: https://www.bath.ac.uk/corporate-information/tobacco-control-research-group-research-projects/