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The smokefree generation and youth vaping: What today’s news means

Alizée Froguel
by Alizee Froguel | Analysis

29 January 2024

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Image of person holding cigarette packet with text 'Smoking is still the biggest preventable cause of cancer' for our Smokefree campaign
In 2022 we launched our Smokefree campaign


Nothing would have a bigger impact on the number of preventable deaths in the UK than ending smoking. That’s why we made it one of the five missions set out in our plan for longer, better lives. 

We celebrated a critical milestone on the road to a smokefree UK when plans for bold new measures to create the first ever smokefree generation were announced in October 2023. 

These proposed actions included bringing forward legislation raising the age of sale of tobacco by one year every year, making it an offence to sell tobacco products to anyone born on or after 1 January 2009, as well as increasing funding for stop smoking services and quit campaigns. 

Government also set out plans to crack down on youth vaping by exploring options to restrict flavours, considering a ban on disposable vapes and regulating packaging to make them less attractive to children. 

Over the past few months, over 25,000 healthcare professionals, public health experts (including Cancer Research UK), parents and teenagers responded to a public consultation on these plans, and the results of that have been published today.

But what do these results mean and what are the next steps on our road to a smokefree generation?  

The smokefree generation – increasing the age of sale of tobacco products 

The consultation response reiterated plans to create the first ever smokefree generation by increasing the age of sale of tobacco.  

The potential impact of this proposed change can’t be understated. 

Tobacco is the biggest preventable cause of cancer and death in the UK, causing an estimated 125,000 deaths a year*.  

Most people who smoke start when they are young and regret ever starting, so increasing the age that people can legally be sold tobacco products could help people from ever taking up a deadly addiction in the first place.  

The proposal to make it an offence for anyone born on, or after, January 1 2009 to be sold tobacco products was popular with people who responded to the consultation, with 63.2% agreeing. 

Similar to current legislation, it will also prohibit proxy sales, which means that anyone born before 1 January 2009 would be prohibited from buying tobacco for underage people.  

There is no safe way to use tobacco. That’s why we were happy to see confirmation that the legislation would apply to all products that contain tobacco – including combustible, smokeless and heated – as well as herbal cigarettes and cigarette papers.  

The response reiterated that the UK Government and devolved administrations will be working together to ensure that as far as possible measures will be adopted in a consistent way. We support this collaborative approach: it is important that nobody is left behind and this legislation applies across the UK.  

We know that smoking rates go down with government action. This planned legislation could make the UK a world leader in tobacco control, and help to create the first ever smokefree generation. 

A graph showing the decline in smoking rates with action since the 1950s

Measures to curb youth vaping 

The government response confirmed strong measures to curb youth vaping; including the implementation of new powers to make the packaging, flavours and displays of e-cigarette products less appealing to children.  

A loophole which allowed for free distributions of vapes in the street without age verification will be closed. Non-nicotine vapes and other consumer nicotine products such as pouches will be subject to the same regulations as vapes that do contain nicotine.  

It was also announced that separate legislation will be brought forward in England, Scotland and Wales to ban disposable vapes, because of their impact on youth vaping and the environment. Northern Ireland will consider doing so too at a later date.  

It’s important that through clamping down on youth vaping we don’t also create barriers for those trying to quit smoking, or risk having people who use these products switch to smoking tobacco or using illicit vapes instead. 

The evidence so far suggests that legal vapes are far less harmful than tobacco and can help people to quit. However, vaping hasn’t been around long enough for us to know its long-term impact, so it can’t be considered risk-free. 

Recent Cancer Research UK-funded research has suggested that banning disposable vapes could stop them falling into the hands of children or people who’ve never smoked but could also have unintended consequences, particularly for people who smoke that are using them to quit smoking.  

When passing restrictions to curb youth vaping, the UK Government must ensure local smoking cessation services are adequately funded, and those trying to quit are given as much support as they need to help them do so.  

We welcomed the announcements of new funding for stop smoking services and quit campaigns in England last October but as we set out in our plan for longer, better lives, it is essential this funding is sustained through the next parliamentary term and until smokefree ambitions are met.

How will we implement the legislation? 

Ensuring the success of the smokefree generation plan and policies to curb youth vaping also rests on robust measures to prevent and prosecute underage sales and reduce illicit trade.  

That’s why, alongside the measures we’ve just talked about, there were also announcements around funding, and enforcement powers.  

This includes new ‘on the spot’ fines, which trading standards officers could give out to shops in England and Wales that illegally sell vapes and tobacco to those underaged. 

In addition, a new strategy to ‘stub out’ illicit tobacco was also published today by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and Border Force – who help to reduce trade in illicit tobacco.  

The strategy will focus on reducing demand for illicit tobacco, as well as tackle and disrupt organised crime behind the illicit tobacco trade. Behind the new strategy, the Government have pledged £100 million across 5 years, used to fund the activity of HMRC, Border Force, and Trading Standards.  

The road ahead 

So, what’s next? 

The Tobacco and Vapes Bill will include raising the age of sale of tobacco products, as well as giving government the powers to take measures restricting the flavours, packaging and display of vapes.  

The legislation should be introduced to the Houses of Parliament soon, and then MPs will have the chance to vote on it. 

A poster for our Smokefree campaign

Things are moving in the right direction, but we’re not ready to take our foot of the pedal yet. At Cancer Research UK, we’ve been continuing to highlight to MPs why it is so important that they support this historic and critical Bill.  This is a chance for this Parliament to secure a legacy they can be proud of that will benefit generations to come.  

You can get involved too. By using our quick and easy form to email your MP, you can tell them that you support a smokefree generation and help bring about a future where tobacco – the biggest cause of cancer and death in the UK – is a thing of the past. It takes just two minutes to make an impact.  

*Global Health Data Exchange. Global Burden of Disease (GBD) Results Tool. Available from http://ghdx.healthdata.org/gbd-results-tool Accessed January 2024. 

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