The Prime Minister’s announcement today that he will follow the New Zealand model, to create a smoke-free generation in England by changing the law so children turning 14 or younger this year can never buy cigarettes in their lifetime, is the very embodiment of a long-term decision.
More importantly, it will save tens of thousands of lives given smoking remains the biggest preventable killer in our country today.
Rishi Sunak deserves great credit for a decision that was always going to ignite debate but is absolutely the correct thing to do. He is on the right side of history.
Some will argue that people should solely be free to make their own choices - whatever the consequences - or that restrictions on the sale of cigarettes will never work.
They will say we’re ‘banning things’ again and they said as much when the Blair Government passed legislation to stop smoking in public places in the late 1990’s. Who now (outside of a small fringe paying homage to a hoped for future perhaps) would argue that should not sustain or should even be reversed?
I would argue, in a publicly funded state health system, we not only have a right - we have a responsibility - to act.
Put simply, we cannot continue to condemn some of the poorest in our society to an addiction that we know kills tens of thousands of people each year and leaves an equal number of families grieving their loss.
Two out of three lifelong smokers will die as a result of their habit, while the costs to the public purse last year of smoking in the UK have been put at £21 billion.
I applaud what have been described as some of the world’s “toughest anti-smoking measures” in New Zealand and warmly welcome the Prime Minister’s intention to roll out a similar policy here.
It should come as no surprise to the tobacco industry. Four years ago, as Public Health Minister, I set the objective for England to be smokefree by 2030. We’ve made solid progress but with still 6.4million smokers in the UK we need a step-change to finish the job. Today marks that moment.
And last year the independent Khan review, led by the energetic Dr Javed Khan and based on unshakeable evidence, called for the age of the sale of tobacco to be raised from 18 every year until no-one could buy a tobacco product in this country.
Prevention really is the new cure but this important move must be accompanied by action to embrace the many other recommendations made by Khan because increasing the legal smoking age each year will do nothing to save the lives of people addicted today.
Targeted smoking cessation services - a chance for the new Integrated Care Systems to really show their value - are a key part of that but we’re going to have to fund them again so public health budgets can’t keep heading in the wrong direction.
And we do need to think very carefully and follow the evidence about the role vaping, including non-disposable vapes, play in giving adults a pathway out of smoking tobacco products. Remember, the sale of vapes (disposable or otherwise) to children remains illegal in our country.
The line that ‘cigarettes are the only product which will kill you if used correctly’ is true, as is the better news that the positive impact of stopping smoking on health is immediate.
The Health and Social Care Committee which I Chair, has highlighted delays to treatment in cases of suspected cancers, including cancers caused by smoking.
We’ve questioned NHS leaders about data that demonstrated worsening performance against cancer targets and we’re concerned by UK cancer survival rates that lag behind comparable countries worldwide. Our major inquiry on preventing ill-health received submissions which put the emphasis on population-level interventions over those targeted at changing behaviour in individuals.
With his announcement, the Prime Minister is absolutely spot on and taking a major step in the right direction.
Steve Brine MP Chairs the Health and Social Care Committee in the House of Commons and was Public Health Minister 2017-2019.
He co-presents the ‘Prevention is the new cure’ podcast which is available on all platforms.