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A critical day on our road to Smokefree

Ian Walker
by Ian Walker | Opinion

6 October 2023

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Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks at the 2023 Conservative Party Conference
Photo credit: Danny Lawson/PA Wire

I have never shied away from being vocal about the impact of tobacco on our society. 

So you can imagine my delight when, at a speech on Wednesday at the Conservative Party Conference, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced landmark plans to curb smoking for good in England, representing the biggest political shift in tobacco policy in over a decade.  

The announcement included plans to raise the age of sale of tobacco so that no child turning 14 today will ever be able to be legally sold tobacco products in England. It was also announced that the UK Government would increase its funding of stop smoking services, mass media awareness-raising campaigns and enforcement. 

These measures – if implemented – would be a critical step in achieving a Smokefree UK. As a charity, we’ve been tirelessly campaigning for changes just like this for a decade – informing and influencing the government to keep cancer at the top of their agenda, publishing research in support of our policy asks, and culminating in our Smokefree campaign.  

So, what do these announcements mean for our goal of preventing more cancers, and where do we go from here? 

The impact of tobacco 

Nothing would have a bigger impact on reducing the number of preventable deaths in the UK than ending smoking. 

Smoking is still the biggest preventable cause of cancer and death in the UK. It causes around 150 cancer cases each day in the UK and kills one person every 5 minutes.  

We know that tobacco puts huge pressure on our NHS and our economy – but most importantly it also costs lives.  

I, like many of our supporters, have lost loved ones to tobacco-related illness, all the while the industry reaped the profits from selling their deadly products. 

My grandfather smoked for almost all of his life, eventually dying from cancer. This impact was felt widely across my family and represents just one of the estimated 9 million deaths caused by smoking in the UK since the 1960s. 

Like the majority of people who smoke, he became addicted to smoking as a child.  

That’s why I’m so pleased with Wednesday’s announcements.  

Creating the first smoke-free generation 

One announcement that received widespread coverage was the Prime Minister’s proposal to raise the age of sale of tobacco by one year every year.  

What this means in practice is that children turning 14 this year (so born on or after 1 January 2009) will never be able to be legally sold cigarettes. This wouldn’t be about criminalizing the purchase of tobacco by these young people, but rather the sale of these products.  

This proposed measure has the potential to phase out smoking in young people almost completely as early as 2040 according to UK Government. If implemented, it could prevent people from ever taking up smoking, thereby protecting them from a potential lifetime of addiction, ill health and disease. Critically, these benefits would also be felt for all subsequent generations, leaving a remarkable legacy. 

This measure was first suggested last year in an independent review led by Dr Javed Khan that Cancer Research UK and our partners within the Smokefree Action Coalition helped to shape and endorse, and a similar law has recently been passed in New Zealand.  

Of critical importance, new funding was also announced to ensure better enforcement of age of sale laws and to combat the illicit trade of tobacco. This will be vital in better enforcing existing laws, but also in ensuring that the proposed change can be effective in the future. 

More funding for stop smoking services, mass media campaigns and enforcement 

Another exciting announcement was that the UK Government would be increasing funding for the measures and services that help people quit smoking, another key step that we have been lobbying for over many years. 

Indeed, the government announced that they would be more than doubling the funding available (to around £138 million) for local stop smoking services to support a total of around 360,000 people a year to quit smoking. This is hugely welcome news, as we know that these services give people who smoke the best chance of quitting. 

An additional £5 million this year (and £15 million a year subsequently) was also announced to fund national stop smoking campaigns that help encourage people who smoke to quit and signpost them to support available.  

We know that these measures work and are cost-effective, but they have not been sufficiently funded in the past. So their implementation, which was recommended in Khan’s independent review, is extremely positive.  

Measures to curb youth vaping  

It was also announced that later this month, the UK Government would be consulting on measures to reduce the availability and appeal of vaping to children. This will include looking at restrictions on how e-cigarettes are packaged and displayed in shops to ensure they are not targeted at children. 

Based on the current evidence, we know that e-cigarettes are far less harmful than smoking and can help people who smoke to quit, so it was good to see that the government also said they would be striking a balance to ensure that vapes are still available to adults to help them quit smoking.

Campaigning for change 

Wednesday’s announcement is not just a win for Cancer Research UK, but also our incredible partners and supporters who have been campaigning and working alongside us. 

This year alone we have made huge strides in our goal to end smoking-related cancers. 

To mark No Smoking Day in March, over 2000 supporters signed an open letter to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Steve Barclay, and Chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, asking them to tackle tobacco in England. We also supported a debate in Westminster Hall, led by Conservative MP Bob Blackman, as well as publishing a video on why funding for Stop Smoking Services matters.   

In April, the government outlined their initial response to the Khan review which I, alongside other Cancer Research UK staff, attended the launch of. Whilst there were some commitments made, this didn’t include raising the age of sale or more funding for stop smoking services or mass media campaigns. So we continued lobbying for these changes. 

We stood by our calls to action then and we haven’t relented since.  

Importantly, raising the age of sale of tobacco and investing more funding to help people quit smoking were key calls of our Smokefree UK campaign – which we launched in in July 2022 by gathering over 60 of our committed Campaigns Ambassadors in Westminster. 

Since then, we’ve seen thousands of supporters contact their MPs to ask them to pledge to support our policy calls as a ‘Smokefree MP’.  

As part of this campaign, and to mark World No Tobacco Day on 31 May, we launched a petition to the Prime Minister, calling on the UK Government to provide more funding for stop smoking services and public health campaigns to help people across the UK quit smoking.  

In September, we handed in this petition to 10 Downing Street alongside Campaigns Ambassadors, politicians and partners. Our policy calls were backed by almost 14,000 supporters, more than 50 MPs, councillors and Lords, and over 20 organisations. 

Cancer Research UK Campaigners outside number 10 Downing street with MPs Bob Blackman, John McNally and Martyn Day.
Cancer Research UK Campaigners with MPs Bob Blackman, John McNally and Martyn Day.

And throughout it all we have maintained a steady beat of news stories, media interviews and analysis, highlighting the devastating impacts of tobacco on our society to ensure that it remained at the top of the agenda.  

The road ahead 

This announcement is a fantastic step forwards, but we know that announcements don’t always come to fruition. Our work isn’t done, and we can’t yet rest on our laurels. We will continue to need our fantastic ambassadors and supporters to make sure these plans are made a reality.  

For age of sale, the Prime Minister has announced that MPs will be given a free vote in parliament to decide if the plans will be implemented. We urge all MPs to support this vote and will continue to campaign to ensure its success. 

Whilst the additional funding announced by the government was hugely welcome, we will also continue to ensure that funding is sufficient, sustainable and goes to the places that need it the most across the country. 

We will also continue to work with the devolved nations to ensure that the necessary steps are taken to achieve Smokefree across the UK. 

I, for one, am looking forward to a smokefree future for our children.  

Smokefree UK Supporters gathered on College Green before the petition hand-in

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