Legal Matters: Could the legal age of buying cigarettes be increased?

The World Health Organization has reported that 9 out of 10 smokers start before the age of 18
The World Health Organization has reported that 9 out of 10 smokers start before the age of 18 The World Health Organization has reported that 9 out of 10 smokers start before the age of 18

PRIME Minister Rishi Sunak has set out a plan that proposes raising the legal age that people in England can buy cigarettes that could mean 14-year-olds will never be able to smoke, effectively resulting in a generation that hasn’t been exposed to nicotine.

This would be the most impactful legislative reform in the smoking industry since 2007, when smoking was banned in indoor spaces in the UK. The proposition follows a similar approach to that of New Zealand, who introduced similar measures for its population.

But why has the proposed Bill created so much discourse, and why is it controversial?

The Bill proposed will not only include cigarettes, but would be anticipated to include e-cigarettes too, creating a complete ban on nicotine products for the age group in question. The specification of the proposition would detail that the smoking age would be increased by one year every year, so that it would be illegal for this age group to smoke.

It has been argued that the ban is needed for this age group, as the World Health Organization has reported that ‘9 out of 10 smokers start before the age of 18’. Therefore, the introduction of the ban could prevent a dangerous snowball effect, preventing addiction, healthcare costs and the associated risks that smoking brings.

Since reform in 2007, smoking rates have decreased from 22% in 2006 to 18% in 2015, but the rates for smoking among young people are rapidly increasing, with around 207,000 children starting smoking every year, according to Action on Smoking and Health (ASH).

The Bill has sparked a lot of attention, from both private bodies and the public at large and has been embraced by health charities, who view this development as a major step forward to combat smoking.

Michelle Mitchell, the chief executive of Cancer Research UK, said: “If implemented, the prime minister will deserve great credit for putting the health of UK citizens ahead of the interests of the tobacco lobby.”

The health risks associated with smoking not only impact on the individual, but they have a substantial impact on our healthcare system. Smoking is currently estimated to cost the UK Government £17 billion for England alone this year, according to ASH.

Reducing this cost would result not only in lower costs, but it would free up investment opportunities in healthcare charities, such as Cancer Research, especially in deprived areas. The ban could also improve societal attitudes towards smoking, as it would be met with increased skepticism.

The ban has also been criticised with skeptics arguing that the introduction of such bans will not result in fewer teenage smokers, but rather it is only likely to drive business underground. Therefore, this also has a chain reaction on the criminal system, as the Black Market for cigarettes will become more prevalent.

Freedom Organization for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco (FOREST) echoes this sentiment, and argues the measure is one which would not be effective.

One of FOREST’s directors, Simon Clark noted that ‘It will not stop young people smoking, as prohibition does not work’. This response may well undermine the confidence the wider public may have in such a measure.

Perhaps prohibition may in principle be effective, but whether it works in practice remains to be seen. Other measures such as improved education and stricter regulations surrounding the marketing and pricing of such products, could act as a more effective deterrent in the long term.

If passed, it remains to be seen whether this measure will ultimately be successful, but it certainly represents a major milestone in legislative reform in the smoking industry.

:: Aoife Duffy is a senior associate in commercial law firm McKees ( and helps clients obtain compensation for injuries sustained in a wide range of accidents