The UK Smokefree Generation Proposal: Right Intent, Wrong Priority

Posted on October 14, 2023 By Colin

THE UK'S PROPOSED GENERATIONAL SMOKING BAN is a bold plan. The recent initiative announced by UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will progressively raise the legal age for purchasing cigarettes, following the proposal soon to be implemented in New Zealand.

This approach seems commendable at first glance. Smoking is addictive and deadly and we all want young people not to start. But will this plan work and is it the best strategy to reduce smoking rates in Australia?

In England, only a meagre 1% of young people aged 11 to 15 were regular smokers in 2021 - smoking at least one cigarette weekly. In Australia this figure was 3% in 2019. This is a clear indication that young people are already veering away from this deadly habit.

Compliance with the proposed plan will be a big issue. Adolescents are programmed to rebel and seek forbidden fruit. Telling them they can’t smoke is like waving a red flag at a bull. And there will be any number of black market operators willing to sell them what they want.


My interview on the Smokefree Generation with Tom Elliott, 3AW

A staggering 25% of Australia's tobacco market is already dominated by illegal sales spearheaded by criminal gangs. A ban will fuel the black market further and supplies will continue to flow to anyone with cash in their hand, irrespective of age. Countries which adopt this policy can expect to see a surge in the illicit tobacco trade.

However, the real concern in Australia is not young people picking up the habit but the adults who aren't quitting

In the most recent National Drug Strategy Household Surveys, the smoking rate in the over 40s did not decline over the three-year period from 2016-2019. Many of these older smokers are hopelessly addicted to cigarettes and continue to smoke despite imminent risks of cancer, heart and lung disease and an early death. Plain packaging, strict smokefree laws and eye watering cigarette prices have simply not worked for these smokers.

Rather than focusing on the relatively minor problem of youth uptake which may yield dividends sometime in the future, we need to focus on helping their parents and grandparents to quit now. For many smokers it may take 30 or more quit attempts before being successful. Some never succeed. We need to be open to new, innovative and effective solutions.

The misinformation around vaping is staggering. Despite its controversies, vaping is the most effective quitting aid available for addicted adult smokers. Vaping is a far safer alternative to deadly cigarettes for those smokers who are otherwise unable to quit.

According to Minister Butler, Australia's "smoking rates have essentially flatlined"

However, smoking rates are plummeting in other western countries such as New Zealand, Great Britain and the US where vaping is readily and legally available. Vaping is a major contributor to this accelerated decline.


Accelerated decline in smoking in NZ, Great Britain and US while Australia 'flatlines'

Vaping is not for young people, particularly non-smokers, and measures can be taken to reduce youth use. However, even in youth, vaping is diverting many would be smokers from combustible cigarettes

If we are to seriously address smoking, the leading preventable cause of death in Australia, we must adopt a more progressive and focussed approach.

Generational smoking bans might be well-intentioned, but we need to prioritise the area of greatest need and find solutions for stubbornly addicted adult smokers

If adult smokers can’t quit, switching a safer nicotine alternative like vaping is potentially life changing. Vaping will give them longer and healthier lives. After all, isn’t that the main purpose of public health?

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