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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

British government report calls for raising smoking age, eventual ban

This June 14, 2018, file photo shows cartons of Marlboro cigarettes on the shelves at JR outlet in Burlington, N.C.  (Spokesman-Review wire archives)
By Andy Hoffman and Corinne Gretler The Washington Post

A report commissioned by Britain’s government recommends raising the legal smoking age each year in a bid to phase out tobacco use among young people.

If adopted, the measures would slot the nation among the most aggressive countries in trying to stamp out smoking, joining nations such as New Zealand, which plans a similar move, which will eventually become a blanket prohibition.

The report, released Thursday, recommended that the minimum age to buy cigarettes and other tobacco products should be increased from 18 by one year each year. Within several decades, nobody would be able to buy such products.

As a dwindling minority of people in many countries smoke, governments around the world are getting increasingly stricter on smoking. Tobacco companies are racing to offer alternatives with vapes, devices that heat tobacco and oral nicotine.

The proposed changes are part of a goal to make Britain smoke-free by 2030. The country has endorsed cigarette smokers switching to vaping products, which some studies have shown are less harmful than burning tobacco.

The recommendations are part of a review by Javed Khan, former chief executive officer of Barnardo’s, a children’s charity. The project was commissioned by Health Secretary Sajid Javid. The report’s recommendations would have to be adopted into policy and law to become effective.

The proportion of 18- to 24-year-olds who smoke rose to one in three from one in four during the covid pandemic, according to the report. The report also said smokers in the most economically deprived parts of the country devote a disproportionate amount of their income on tobacco, with the average smoker in northeast England devoting more than 10% of their income on smoking.

Shares of Imperial Brands, the biggest seller of cigarettes in Britain, fell as much as 2%. British American Tobacco dropped 1.1%.

The proposal could create a contraband market, according to BAT Chief Marketing Officer Kingsley Wheaton.

“You have to be very careful of the unintended consequences of such policy proposals driving a secondary black market in cigarette sales,” Wheaton said in a phone interview. “If you can vote in this country and decide who your government is going to be at 18, that’s an age of adulthood and an age of responsibility and you’re also able to make your choices about whether you choose to smoke or not.”

Other recommendations include more efforts to switch smokers to vaping, which the report said is likely less harmful than tobacco, including heated tobacco products offered by manufacturers including Philip Morris.

“There’s some really positive stuff for us” among the proposals, Wheaton said, pointing to the report’s reference to using vaping products to help people quit smoking. More than 40% of BAT’s business in Britain is in noncombustible products.

Antismoking advocates urged the government to adopt even stricter controls.

“It’s no secret that smoking is bad for our health, but what is lesser known is it is also bad for our economy,” said David Sinclair, director of the ILC think tank, which estimates if current or ex-smokers had never smoked, overall corporate earnings would be 1.9% higher, boosting Britain’s economy by the equivalent of $23.9 billion every year.

Some 54% said they believe traditional cigarette smoking should be banned and smokers should be moved to vaping and other alternatives, in a survey by Techne UK for More women were in favor of a ban than men, the poll showed.

(Michael R. Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP, has been a longtime champion of tobacco control efforts and has campaigned and given money in support of a U.S. ban on flavored e-cigarettes and tobacco.)