Reflections on the Conservative Party Conference (2023) and Proposed Changes to Smoking Age Restrictions
During the week of 2nd October 2023, I was in Manchester as UK Director of the consumer advocacy group Considerate Pouchers. We held an evening of drinks and mini golf to bring together attendees of the Conservative Party Conference and discuss nicotine pouches.
Read more about the event here.
Now to take a look back at one of the key announcements made at the conference itself –
Proposed changes to the age restrictions for cigarettes.
At this year’s annual Conservative Party Conference, Rishi Sunak announced his plans to eliminate smoking by raising the age at which a person can buy cigarettes.
The Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party has proposed the legislation change to raise the legal age for buying cigarettes in England. The age would be increased by one year every year, with the aim of creating a “smoke-free” generation. This change would mean a 14-year-old today would never legally be sold a cigarette. The proposed legislation would be subject to a free vote in Parliament.
The question is though, does banning something actually stop it happening? We know that most people who smoke start doing so before they are legally allowed to do so. A large part of the current cigarette trade is already run by criminals, this will only grow as the legal market is steadily removed. The black market doesn’t bother with age verification and will happily supply someone whom this ban covers.
At first glance, I can see it’s easy appeal to some voters.
Smoking is unhealthy; we know this. However, if we banned every unhealthy activity under the sun, we’d all have very little to do with our time. History has shown us countless times that prohibition simply doesn’t work. The practical elements of enforcement are somewhat ridiculous as well.
Now, I don’t want to witness young individuals turning into smokers. I strongly believe in transitioning current smokers to safer alternatives. However, I also value personal choice – a move that is effectively prohibition but with extra steps seems like a slippery slope.
The cornerstone of this new suggested legislation, which restricts sales by age, also happens to be the biggest issue with current legislation concerning e-cigarettes. Additionally, we have a complete gap when it comes to nicotine pouches, as they currently have no age limits on who can purchase them.
Age restrictions are sensible ideas in theory; young people aren’t known for always making the best choices, but they don’t always match reality. I started smoking at 14 when the legal age was 16… and how old were most of us when we had our first drink?
It’s not down to poor legislation but a lack of proper and consistent enforcement.
Youth vaping (the levels of which are debatable) is surely a product of a failure to enforce the sensible legislation that the United Kingdom already has in place. These products are not to be sold to those under 18, but it would seem that this age restriction is impossible to enforce?
The reason these products do find their way into the hands of youngsters isn’t due to some sinister plot by the big tobacco giants of old – it’s Chinese imports being sold in corner shops to children.
This happens because, as a country, we fail to enforce a simple age restriction. Now it seems we are going to introduce and enforce complex new legislation as a step towards reducing personal agency and further extending the ever-expanding reach of the nanny state. Perhaps, instead of changing existing cigarette legislation, we should focus our efforts on ensuring that the laws around e-cigarette sales are enforced to the same extent?
So, what does this mean for users of nicotine pouches? Well, it doesn’t have much impact when taken at face value. I assume we are all of legal smoking age, so we can continue to purchase and occasionally smoke cigarettes if we desire. Politicians are primarily concerned with vaping as an easy target rather than nicotine pouches at the moment.
Considerate Pouchers aim to protect nicotine pouch users’ rights and advocate for sensible, evidence based regulation. We want to see age-regulated access and integration of nicotine pouches into cessation programs. Fortunately, the government hasn’t turned its crosshairs to pouches just yet.
You can read my letter on behalf of Considerate Pouchers to Neil O’Brien MP (Minister for Primary Care and Public Health) – Department of Health & Social Care and his response here.
From a broader perspective, I find it concerning that personal freedoms are being restricted. No one should feel at ease with limiting freedom of choice, and it is historically evident that prohibition is ineffective and can create more problems than it aims to solve.
We’re looking at a future where adults who can vote, pay taxes, and consume alcohol will be denied the opportunity to buy a product that is legally accessible to individuals just one year older than them. That doesn’t sound like freedom of choice to me and I don’t like it.
What also strikes me as odd is the timing of this proposed policy change given smoking rates have long been in steady decline in the UK. According to the Office for National Statistics, smoking rates hit an all-time low of 12.9% in 2022, a record typically broken every year. Consumers have been making their own choices to switch to less harmful, smoke-free ways of consuming nicotine. This is why it’s crucial for governments to embrace harm-reduction products such as vaping and, of course, nicotine pouches as the path to a smoke-free future and to achieve the 2030 target set out in 2019.
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