UK Sets Up Framework to Eventually Ban Cigarettes for All

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced on Wednesday that he plans to raise the legal smoking age by one year every year.

(Photo by Lex Guerra on Unsplash)

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The UK has the vapors over tobacco.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced on Wednesday that he plans to raise the legal smoking age by one year every year, effectively banning the sale of cigarettes to anyone born after 2008. For Big Tobacco, this might not be the scariest proposition, but more worrying is the accompanying announcement that the UK government plans a “major crackdown on youth vaping.”

Smoke and Mirrors

The UK isn’t the only country to outlaw cigarettes, Sunak’s move almost exactly mirrors former New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s smoking age policy, which she introduced last December. It’s notable that Sunak and Ardern fall on fairly disparate ends of the political spectrum, which in years gone by might have been worrying for tobacco company execs that legislators of different political stripes might start copycatting the policy more widely. However, it’s possible that smoking culture makes the policy an easier win for some politicians than others — in the UK around 14% of the population smokes daily, while in France it’s just over 22%.

From the tobacco industry’s point of view, however, young smokers aren’t necessarily a target demographic. In its announcement, the UK government said more children vape than smoke. Policies that target vapes and young people are potentially much more troubling to tobacco companies than phasing out a product that stopped being cool ages ago:

  • In May, Australia banned recreational vaping, and disposable vapes in particular have been in the sights of regulators in EU countries including Germany.
  • Legal troubles surrounding vaping have already caused some withdrawal headaches for Big Tobacco. Altria, the company behind Marlboro, ditched its minority stake in vape-maker Juul in March.

Steam-powered: Traditional tobacco companies are far from giving up on vapes. Philip Morris’ CEO said in May that the company is pinning its hopes on becoming an ESG stock by focusing more heavily on vaping products. A June report from The Guardian found that lobbying groups with ties to Big Tobacco placed what appeared to be grassroots campaign ads on Facebook for UK users, encouraging vapers to advocate for their right to blow clouds of cotton-candy-smelling steam.