What is Rishi Sunak’s anti-smoking bill and will it pass?

<span>The legislation aims to ensure anyone born after 1 January 2009 will never legally be sold cigarettes.</span><span>Photograph: Daisy-Daisy/Alamy</span>
The legislation aims to ensure anyone born after 1 January 2009 will never legally be sold cigarettes.Photograph: Daisy-Daisy/Alamy

Rishi Sunak’s tobacco and vapes bill aims to create the UK’s first smoke-free generation, in a landmark public health intervention.

What is the ban and how would it work?

The tobacco and vapes bill ensures anyone turning 15 from 2024, or younger, will be banned from buying cigarettes, and aims to make vapes less appealing to children.

The legislation does not ban smoking outright, as anyone who can legally buy tobacco now will still be able to do so if the bill becomes law. It will make it illegal to sell tobacco products to anyone born after 1 January 2009. The plan was first reported by the Guardian, and announced by the prime minister in his speech to the Conservative party conference last year.

It will raise the age of tobacco sale by one year every year, with the aim of stopping today’s young people from ever taking up smoking.

As well as raising the smoking age every year, the legislation includes provisions to regulate the display, contents, flavours and packaging of vapes and nicotine products.

Trading standards officers will be able to fine retailers who ignore the new restrictions, with the revenue raised funding further enforcement.

What are the arguments in favour?

Health leaders, NHS bosses and medical professionals say phasing out smoking will save thousands of lives. Smoking kills about 80,000 people a year.

Ministers say smoking rates among those aged 14-30 could be near zero by 2040 as a result of the legislation.

Prof Steve Turner, the president of the Royal College for Paediatrics and Child Health, said: “By stopping children and young people from becoming addicted to nicotine and tobacco, we decrease their chances of developing preventable diseases later in life, and will protect children from the harms of nicotine addiction.”

The government says creating a “smoke-free generation” could prevent more than 470,000 cases of heart disease, stroke, lung cancer and other diseases by the end of the century.

Government figures show smoking costs the UK about £17bn a year, including £10bn through lost productivity alone. It says this cost dwarfs the £10bn raised through taxes on tobacco products.

And against?

Some Tory MPs have expressed concerns, with the former prime minister Liz Truss saying the plans are “profoundly unconservative”, and her predecessor, Boris Johnson, describing the ban as “nuts”.

Truss said earlier this year: “A Conservative government should not be seeking to extend the nanny state. It only gives succour to those who wish to curtail freedom.”

Kemi Badenoch, the business secretary, was the only cabinet minister to vote against the bill going to a second reading, arguing that the burden of enforcement would fall on private businesses, and that the bill undermined the principle of equality.

“We should not treat legally competent adults differently in this way, where people born a day apart will have permanently different rights,” she posted on X before the vote.

Other Tory MPs object to the plans because they claim they are unworkable and could lead to other things being banned. The former cabinet minister Sir Simon Clarke said: “An enforcement nightmare and a slippery slope – alcohol next?”

How soon will the bill pass?

A final vote in the Lords is expected to take place in the middle of June after the bill passes its third reading there, but much has to happen in the Commons first.

Tuesday was MPs’ first opportunity to debate the bill and to vote on it. It cleared its first Commons hurdle by 383 votes to 67, giving a majority of 316, with the support of the Labour party.

The committee stage comes later in April, when amendments can be tabled, before there is a vote on them in May and then a vote by MPs on the bill’s third reading.

What is the likelihood it will run into political trouble?

There was opposition from 57 Conservative MPs and six ministers, including Badenoch, Julia Lopez, Lee Rowley, Alex Burghart, Steve Baker and Andrew Griffith.

The Commons leader, Penny Mordaunt was reported to be wavering but in the end abstained, one of 106 Tory MPs who did not cast a vote. Some of these will have had other reasons for staying away, such as the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, who was travelling to the International Monetary Fund in Washington.

Tory critics’ best hope for frustrating the bill will now be to overload it with amendments and slow down its passage.

Amendments are likely to include a push to introduce licensing for vaping retailers or to change the age of people affected.

Tory opponents also believe there could be more ideological opposition in the Lords.

The final vote in the Lords is expected to take place in June. While peers have been a block on Sunak’s flagship Rwanda deportation plan, they are not expected, ultimately, to stand in the way of the tobacco bill.

Which other countries have attempted a ban?

A similar law had been expected to come into effect in New Zealand in July, but was repealed by the country’s new coalition government in February. The toughest anti-tobacco rules in the world would have banned sales to people born after 2009, cut nicotine content in smoked tobacco products and cut the number of tobacco retailers by more than 90%.

Countries with notable restrictions on smoking include Mexico, which has smoking bans at beaches, parks and some homes.

Portugal is aiming to become smoke-free by 2040, with plans to ban the sale of tobacco products in bars and cafes. Meanwhile, Canada became the first country to require health warnings to be printed on individual cigarettes.

More than a quarter of the world’s population are covered by smoking bans in public spaces, according to the World Health Organization.

Of the 74 countries with smoke-free policies, Ireland was the first to ban smoking in all indoor workplaces, in 2004.