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Rishi Sunak wants a tobacco-free UK

Correspondent in London.

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Rishi Sunak wants a tobacco-free UK

Correspondent in London

A Briton turning 15 today will never be able to legally obtain cigarettes. This is the objective of the conservative government, which intends to make the country a tobacco-free kingdom. The bill, imposing some of the strictest anti-smoking rules in the world, passed its first parliamentary stage on Tuesday evening. With this offensive on the public health front, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak hopes to restore his image while he is struggling in the polls before the fall elections.

The idea is to gradually extend the ban on the sale of cigarettes, raising the legal age by one year each year. He is currently 18 years old. Downing Street estimates that this law could help “almost completely eliminate smoking among young people by 2040.” Children born since 2009 will no longer be able to legally purchase tobacco. Official figures show that four in five smokers started before the age of 20. And most of them remain addicted all their lives. “Too many people know someone whose life has been tragically cut short or irreversibly changed because of smoking,” said Health Minister Victoria Atkins.

Also read: British MPs debate bill to make the UK a tobacco-free nation

The bill was passed in the House of Commons on Tuesday evening by 383 votes in favor and 67 against, and will now move to the next stage where it can be subject to amendments. Rishi Sunak was able to count on the votes of the Labor opposition but dozens of his MPs voted against, a new unwelcome rebellion for the Prime Minister. The minister responsible for relations with Parliament, Penny Mordaunt, abstained with 105 other conservatives. MPs benefited from a so-called “free” vote, meaning they did not have to vote along their party line.

Some members of the Conservative Party protest against an attack on individual freedom, believing that the state should not interfere in the way people live their lives. Short-lived Prime Minister Liz Truss said the bill was “anti-conservative”. “We are a free country,” said the woman who had to give way to Rishi Sunak, “we should not be the ones telling people not to smoke.” Boris Johnson said it was “crazy” that Winston Churchill’s party wanted to ban cigars of which the former Conservative leader was a great fan. Within the government itself, Business Minister Kemi Badenoch, while saying she agrees with the Prime Minister's intentions, opposed the bill. She expressed concern about its impact on individual freedoms and its difficulty of application. A similar law passed in New Zealand was ultimately scrapped this year by the new coalition government before it came into force.

For Rishi Sunak, it’s about tackling “the biggest threat to public health.” According to the government, smoking is the leading cause of “avoidable” death in the UK and is responsible for around 80,000 deaths a year. Furthermore, it would cost the public health service (NHS) and the economy around £20 billion a year. According to estimates from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), almost 6.4 million people smoke in the UK, around 13% of the adult population. A figure lower than that of other European countries such as France, Germany or Italy, where 18 to 23% of adults smoke according to OECD figures.

The bill is supported by doctors and health experts as well as charities. According to a poll, this anti-smoking crusade would also be popular among Britons, with a third of voters supporting the progressive approach of the bill, 30% favoring a ban for all at once and only a quarter believing that it should not be banned. On the other hand, tobacco manufacturers - whose prices are disrupted by the bill - sharply criticize it, believing that such a provision risks boosting the black market and that it will be difficult to enforce.

The text also intends to fight against vaping among young people. It thus places restrictions on the aromas and the way in which the products are presented, in order to make them less attractive. Fruit-flavored “puffs” sold in small colored tubes are becoming increasingly popular among young people. To combat this growth, Rishi Sunak announced at the beginning of the year the upcoming ban on these disposable electronic cigarettes.

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