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Government Publishes Consultation on a 'Smokefree Generation'

The Government has launched a UK-wide consultation on proposals to crack down on youth vaping and create a "smoke-free generation".

Among options under consideration are a complete ban on disposable vapes, restricting their sale, and reducing their appeal and affordability.

The Government also wants to make it an offence for anyone born on or after 1 January 2009 to be sold tobacco products.

All devolved governments have given it their backing and have agreed to a joint consultation. 

Smoking is the UK's biggest primary cause of preventable illness and premature death, accounting for approximately 74,600 deaths a year in England, and costing the economy and wider society £17 billion each year, according to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC). 

Professor Sir Chris Whitty, England's chief medical officer, emphasised that "ensuring people do not become addicted to smoking, and helping them overcome addiction to stop smoking, are two the best interventions for health". Sir Chris highlighted that vaping was "less dangerous" than smoking but still had "risks" and could cause addiction. 

Surge In Children Using Vapes

Selling vapes to children is illegal but vapes were "too often targeted at children" with the promotion of cheap, colourful, and sweet flavours, alerted the DHSC. Although vaping could help smokers to quit, Professor Whitty stressed they should not be marketed to non-smokers, and described making them appealing to children as "utterly unacceptable".

Recent figures highlighted by the DHSC suggested a three-fold increase in the number of children using vapes in the past 3 years, with 20.5% of children aged between 11 and 17 having tried vaping in 2023. Use amongst younger children was also rising, with 9% of 11- to 15-year-olds reportedly using vapes, according to a survey by NHS Digital.

Raising the Legal Smoking Age Each Year

The consultation followed a Conservative Party conference announcement last week by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to legislate to stop children who turn 14 this year from ever legally being sold cigarettes.

Proposals being consulted on included:

  • Making it an offence for anyone born on or after 1 January 2009 to be sold tobacco products – and in Scotland making it an offence for anyone born on or after 1 January 2009 to also purchase tobacco products
  • Restricting the flavours and descriptions of vapes so vape flavours were no longer targeted at children
  • Regulating point of sale displays in retail outlets so vapes were kept out of sight from children and away from products that appealed to them, such as sweets

Other measures included regulating vape packaging and product presentation to ensure that neither the device nor its packaging was targeted at children, exploring whether increasing the price of vapes would reduce the number of young people using them, and restricting the sale of disposable vapes, which the DHSC said was "clearly linked to the rise in vaping in children". 

Consultation Widely Welcomed

Professor Sir Nilesh Samani, British Heart Foundation medical director, welcomed the Government's "signal" that it intended to take decisive action to ensure future generations were smoke free, and was pleased to see the consultation included vaping. "This is an important opportunity to ensure that regulations around vaping are effective," he said.

Deborah Arnott, chief executive of health charity ASH, stressed that a balance must be struck between protecting children while still helping adult smokers quit.

The DHSC reassured that the Government was "committed to clamping down" on vapes being promoted to children, while ensuring adults who wanted to quit smoking remained supported.

Figures from the Office for National Statistics showed that 6.4 million people in the UK were current smokers in 2022, equivalent to 12.9% of the population. The proportion of smokers varied across the four nations, standing at 14.1% in Wales, 14% in Northern Ireland, 13.9% in Scotland, and 12.7% in England.

Scottish Government Health Secretary Michael Matheson welcomed the consultation. Smoking rates in Scotland were at an "all-time low", but he acknowledged there was "still work to do".

Welsh Government Deputy Minister for Mental Health and Wellbeing, Lynne Neagle, said the Government wanted to take "all actions possible" to stop young people from starting smoking in the first place and prevent vapes being use by and targeted at children.

The consultation, which is open to people of all ages across the UK, have 8 weeks to comment.

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