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Sunak’s smoking ban looks like legacy politics

The Prime Minister seems to be searching for answers to the question: what did you actually do in office?

By Freddie Hayward

David Cameron had gay marriage, Theresa May had net zero, Boris Johnson had the vaccine rollout, and Liz Truss had the attempted ennoblement of the Institute of Economic Affairs’ Mark Littlewood. Each prime minister, towards the end of their time in office, tries to sculpt a legacy out of the parliamentary haranguing and policy compromises – with varying success. It is their response to the question: what did you actually do in office?

Rishi Sunak reportedly wants his legacy to be 35-year-olds asking their 36-year-old friends to buy them cigarettes in 20 years’ time. Or, more sympathetically, a generation that does not smoke because it never had the opportunity to become addicted in the first place. That’s the aim of the government’s announcement today: that it will press forward with plans to ban disposable vapes, and the sale of cigarettes to anyone born after 2008.

Cue a volley from the party’s right. Liz Truss has made an intervention this morning, and there’s a rumoured rebellion from libertarians on the Tory benches. Truss said the policy was “profoundly unconservative”, adding: “A Conservative government should not be seeking to extend the nanny state. This will only give succour to those who wish to ban further choices of which they don’t approve.”

But those who doubt voters’ appetite for public health paternalism should look no further than people’s willingness to stay at home during the pandemic. On this morning’s media round, Victoria Atkins, the Health Secretary, pointed to the success of New Labour’s ban on smoking in pubs as evidence of the public’s support for such measures. According to YouGov, 67 per cent support Sunak’s policy, compared with 14 per cent who oppose it. Support is even higher among Conservative voters. Yet again, Truss is auditioning to lead a country that does not exist.

And kids vape now, anyway. According to the Action on Smoking and Health charity, 7.6 per cent of young people vape compared with 3.7 per cent who smoke. And that doesn’t take into account the growing popularity of nicotine pouches – tobacco-free teabags placed on the gum. It makes sense that clean nicotine is more appealing to this increasingly sexless, sober and poor generation (high taxes and inflation mean the average pack of 20 now costs £14.39, compared to £5-£6 for a disposable vape). At this rate, Sunak’s smoking ban may only inhibit the rebellious few. The big impact could come from the clampdown on rampantly popular disposable vapes.

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[See also: George Freeman: A Labour government is very likely]

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