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The UK wants to ban the next generation from smoking. Will it work?

Northeastern University experts Dina Rabie and Richard Daynard weigh in on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s plan that would make it unlawful for anyone born in 2009 or later to buy tobacco products in the United Kingdom.

Cigarettes laid out on a red background.
The plan would make it unlawful for anyone born in 2009 or later to buy tobacco products in the United Kingdom. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

LONDON — Ministers from governments on both sides of the political debate have introduced measure after measure designed to make smoking less attractive.

Restrictions have ranged from banning smoking in pubs and restaurants to outlawing big tobacco firms from advertising or even from putting their branding on packaging.

Those who have continued to smoke are confronted with grim pictures on cigarette packets warning of tobacco-related illnesses such as lung cancer and impotence every time they reach for their next smoke.

But British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has decided none of those measures go far enough. 

The Conservative politician is pushing through legislation that would effectively ban smoking among the next generation of adults.

Sunak’s plan means it would be unlawful for anyone born in 2009 or later to buy tobacco products in the United Kingdom.

Headshot of Richard Daynard (left) and Dina Rabie (right).
Richard Daynard and Dina Rabie. Photo by Alyssa Stone and courtesy photo

Unlike previous generations, those born after that threshold would no longer have the legal right when they turn 18 to walk into a shop and buy a pack of cigarettes.

Sunak’s anti-smoking legislation passed its first major test in the Parliament when lawmakers this week voted 383-67 to approve the ban. 

But it has split the ruling Conservative Party. Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch — seen as a possible successor to Sunak as party leader — voted against the policy, while former Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it was “absolutely nuts” that the party of Sir Winston Churchill was attempting to sound the death knell for the British war leader’s beloved cigar.

The debate this week saw elected Members of Parliament (MPs) raise concerns about the policy that ranged from fears surrounding the erosion of civil liberties, all the way to the difficulty in policing such a ban.

Dina Rabie, a lecturer in economics at Northeastern University London, said there is no doubt that smoking has “very negative health effects” — including on those breathing in secondhand smoke — and that it can be a difficult habit to break.

But the behavioral economist said the British government’s move is likely to be seen as “divisive in society” because it creates a permanent legal difference between those born before 2009 and those born after.

“There is this big debate on whether governments should be libertarian or paternalistic, and this move by the U.K. is so paternalistic,” Rabie said.

“Those who were born on January 1, 2009, will not be able to buy cigarettes, and someone born only one day earlier will be. 

“So I think this will be divisive in society, especially among this age group.”

Rabie pointed out that it could create power imbalances within Generation Z, with those born before 2009 able to buy cigarettes and then sell it to younger acquaintances. 

It could also fuel a black market, she warned, in a country where cigarette prices are already high.

The U.K.’s Office for National Statistics calculated that the average price for a 20-pack of cigarettes (packs of 10 cigarettes and small bags of rolling tobacco were banned in 2017 in a move designed to deter young smokers taking up the habit) reached £15.50 ($19.30) in March.

“Imposing a complete ban, and not just introducing high taxes, can also result in an increase in the black market,” Rabie said.

“We will see increases in illegal activities. We already have these illegal activities with drugs among young people. 

“But now having this ban on cigarettes as well, what is going to happen is that these cigarettes will be added to the drugs market.”

Rabie argues that the U.K.’s position as an international outlier in introducing the law — New Zealand’s right-wing coalition this year repealed legislation that would have enacted a world-first ban on young people smoking — will only serve to highlight to young citizens how it is their age that is counting against them.

“If this collectively happened in the European Union, for example, it would become more of the norm,” she added.

The U.K. government’s smoking ban looks set to become law thanks to opposition support, with the Labour Party — which is on course to form the next government, according to opinion polls — backing it.

Despite the Tobacco and Vapes Bill looking like it will pass, Sunak’s authority faced a blow after 57 of his own Conservative MPs voted against the draft law on Tuesday.

His predecessor, Johnson, has been particularly vocal in opposing the policy.

Johnson, who quit Parliament last year in protest at an MP-led inquiry concluding he had lied to Parliament about lockdown-busting parties held at No. 10 Downing St. during the COVID-19 pandemic, reportedly told an event in Canada this month that it was “mad” that the party of Churchill was “banning cigars.”

Images of Churchill with a cigar hanging from his mouth while making the “V for victory” symbol with his fingers have become embedded in the British psyche as a symbol of Allied victory over Nazi Germany during World War II.

But Richard Daynard, the U.S.-based distinguished professor of law at Northeastern University, argues that harking back to the era of Churchill fails to account for the advances in science made in the past 80 years.

“In the 1940s, what did we know about the dangers of smoking at that point? Not very much,” he said.

“It is a different world. If Boris Johnson wants to champion the level of scientific ignorance on the subject from the 1940s and ’50s, that wouldn’t surprise me.

“But it doesn’t sound like a very attractive position to take generally, that we are simply going to ignore everything that we have learned about the deadly effects of smoking. 

“Cigarettes are a little more deadly than cigars only because they are inhaled. Usually you don’t inhale cigar smoke,” he said.

“But you can still get mouth cancer. Sigmund Freud died of mouth cancer from being a cigar smoker. He was proud of [smoking a cigar], but it was sufficient enough to kill him. These are not good things.”

Daynard is president of Northeastern’s Public Health Advocacy Institute, which recently defended in court the policy enacted by Brookline — a town just outside Boston — that banned anyone born in the 21st century from buying tobacco products.

He said an argument put forward by the policy’s critics at the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, the highest court in the state, was that the bylaw drew an “arbitrary line” in the population, impacting anyone born from 2000 onward.

The judge in the case “dealt with that in a short paragraph” when upholding the bylaw in March, he said.

“She said the law is drawing lines all the time — big deal,” Daynard said.

Daynard is not swayed either by the argument from some libertarians that preventing the next generation from smoking impinges on a citizen’s right to choose how they live.

He argues that rather than younger people being discriminated against, a public policy that allows people to take up harmful and addictive behaviors is in fact the discriminatory position as it fails to protect citizens.

“As the U.K. health secretary [Victoria Atkins] pointed out during the debate in Parliament — choice? What choice?” Daynard said.

“We are talking about addictive behavior. Addiction is defined essentially as the opposite of choice. 

“When you are addicted, you lose your freedom of choice. 

“Speak to any addicted smoker who has tried 20 times to quit unsuccessfully and ask them how their choices are doing and, if they had the chance to do it over again, whether they would have started smoking to begin with.”