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A closer look at the UK government's ambitious plan for a smoke-free generation

Professor Maggie Rae, President, and Dr Nicola Stingelin, council member, of the Epidemiology & Public Health Section, Royal Society of Medicine, dissect the UK government's proposal to phase out smoking ahead of our upcoming webinar Spotlight on: A smoke-free generation.

The UK government's recent proposal to create a smoke-free generation and ban the sale of tobacco products to anyone born on or after 1 January 2009 is a bold and necessary step toward a healthier future. It is underpinned by a clear understanding of the devastating impact of smoking on public health.

Creating a smoke-free generation

The statistics are stark and sobering. Smoking, the single most preventable cause of ill health, claims 80,000 lives annually in the UK. The initiative's focus on young people is commendable, considering that over 80% of smokers start before the age of 20. This move aims to prevent addiction-driven smoking before it starts, sparing future generations from the burdens of smoking-related ill health and premature death. 

While the policy targets young people, it is crucial to acknowledge the remaining challenges with adult smokers. Many are unable to quit due to nicotine addiction, often established in their teenage years. The proposed legislation must strike a balance, addressing both youth initiation and providing support for addicted adults. 

Moreover, we must ensure that interventions are focused where they are most needed. COVID-19 highlighted existing inequalities in smoking rates, emphasising the need for targeted public health efforts in more disadvantaged communities. 

A step in the right direction

The government's focus on creating a smoke-free generation aligns with the long-term goal of reducing smoking prevalence. 

By preventing the legal purchase of cigarettes for those born after 2009, the government aims to break the cycle of addiction and significantly reduce smoking-related diseases in the long term. 

The allocation of £70 million per year for local stop-smoking services is a welcome move. However, it is essential to acknowledge the historical cuts to public health budgets, impacting the effectiveness of these services. The additional funding must be effectively and efficiently deployed, ensuring that interventions are evidence-based, socially and culturally appropriate and fair. 

The rise of youth vaping

The risks of harm to the young arising from both nicotine and nicotine free vaping is a growing concern.      

The government's plan to regulate the sale of disposable vapes is a crucial step in curbing the rise of youth vaping. Commerical marketing tactics targeting the sale of vapes to children are unacceptable, and restrictions on disposable vapes will mitigate environmental and health risks associated with their increased use. 

Increasing the price of vapes to reduce youth vaping rates is a delicate approach. While it may deter some, it is essential to consider the potential impact on adult smokers who use vapes as a smoking cessation tool. Regulating flavours, packaging, and point-of-sale displays, alongside exploring further restrictions, could contribute to reducing youth vaping without limiting cessation tools for adults. A nuanced strategy, involving on-the-spot fines for underage sales, enhanced enforcement, and regulation of vape packaging, may be the best way to strike a balance. 

A historic intervention

The Government’s consultation is open until 11:59pm on Wednesday 6 December 2023. It is crucial to take this opportunity to engage the public and stakeholders in shaping the final policies. The question of whether banning single-use vapes would have unintended consequences should be carefully considered. 

In conclusion, the government's ambitious plan for a smoke-free generation is a significant stride toward a healthier future. Careful consideration of all aspects, ongoing public input, and collaboration with relevant stakeholders will be instrumental in ensuring the success of these transformative public health measures. 

Learn more

Join us online on Tuesday 5 December 2023 for a special Royal Society of Medicine event exploring the impact this policy could have on healthcare and public health. We’ve gathered a global network of distinguished experts, clinicians, and researchers - including Professor Sir Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Officer for England - to enhance your understanding. Spotlight on: A smoke-free generation is the latest in our new series of Spotlight webinars, each focused on an important and topical issue in healthcare.  

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