DEBATE: Should the legal smoking age be raised?

Ailsa Rutter and Alys Watson Brown

June 10, 2022

Ailsa Rutter, OBE Director of Fresh and Balance, argues YES

If a product was invented today that was fiercely addictive, got most customers hooked as children and killed two out of three lifelong users, there would rightly be outrage. The chances of making it onto the market would be miniscule.

And yet this is tobacco. Yesterday saw the publication of Javed Khan’s Independent Review “Making Smoking Obsolete”; a package of recommendations to rid our society of the death, disease, addiction, invalidity, poverty and misery caused by smoking.

We accept too easily the scale of harm from smoking. We’ve lost our capacity to be shocked because we’re not right next to the person gasping their last breaths in a hospital bed.

We didn’t know until recently that smoking has killed 8 million people in the UK since the early 1970s. And in the North East, 113,000 people have been killed by tobacco since the year 2000. That’s two football stadiums filled with mums, dads, grandparents, sons and daughters from entirely avoidable causes.

So the report needed to be bold and ambitious and it is, with one policy catching the eye more than others: raising the age of sale for tobacco like the US and potentially New Zealand.

Let’s be clear – this is not about preventing adult smokers from buying cigarettes. It would ensure that children aged 15, 14 or 13 today are protected from the biggest, single threat to their health and wealth to their lives in getting hooked on smoking. The review also covers many other life-saving policies few could argue with – more support for smokers, more awareness campaigns, a bigger role for switching to vaping and a greater role for the NHS around prevention.

We will now hear loud shouts of outrage from the tobacco industry and front groups pretending to represent smokers. But the truth is that efforts to reduce smoking are hugely popular. Only 6 per cent of people think the government is doing too much on smoking.

Alys Watson Brown, political commentator, argues NO

This government appears to be crashing along two paths with outcomes that can never meet. On the one hand, you have Boris Johnson, desperately trying to re-appease a tired electorate and a roster of exasperated Tory loyalists frustrated over tax rises. On the other, you have Sajid Javid, who repeatedly confuses politics as a pseudonym for public health.

His latest review into UK health disparities declares that a smoke free society should soon be a “social norm”, and one of the best ways to achieve that is to target younger consumers. The number of 18-24 year olds who smoked increased during the pandemic to one in three. Funny what happens when you shove young people into isolation for 18 months, isn’t it?

This is wrong. Firstly, what is a social norm in the UK is the acceptance that 18 is the age when citizens are able to make decisions all risks considered. Why is smoking different to, say, alcohol, when the difference in annual cost to the NHS is minimal and both have been linked to cancers and reduced quality of life?

Secondly, this policy operates under the ludicrous assumption that attitudes towards smoking suddenly ‘change’ in those precious three years between 18-21. In fact you could argue that is when most young adults experiment, have a bit of fun and then make the active choice that habits such as binge drinking and smoking perhaps don’t serve them well for the future.

Finally, this is not a policy which Johnson wants associated with his legacy. It is not a vote winner, and certainly is not a topic voters want to be reading about or need solutions to at present. They have had enough of politicians acting in loco parentis.  Perhaps equip younger voters with prospects for a better life before lecturing them about ‘health’, perhaps ease the repayment of student loans, create more apprenticeships, or find a solution to the impending doom of never getting on the property ladder, to name but a few. People then might be in a place to start looking inward at dangerous habits.

For his own sake and for voters’, this policy is best placed in the bottom drawer until further notice.


Written by Ailsa Rutter and Alys Watson Brown

Ailsa Rutter is OBE Director of Fresh and Balance and Alys Watson Brown is a political commentator.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Capitalism and freedom are under attack. If you support 1828’s work, help us champion freedom by donating here.

Keep Reading



Sign up today to receive exclusive insights