The tobacco ban is an evidence free mess

By: Benjamin Elks, grassroots development manager


Rishi Sunak’s generational smoking ban gets its second reading today. The bill seeks to raise the legal age for purchasing tobacco by one year every year from 2027 - meaning no one who turns 15 this year will ever legally buy tobacco in the UK - as well as banning the sale of disposable vapes.


Alongside the bill, ministers published their impact assessment, outlining what they believe will be the consequences of the ban. I don’t know how many of you have taken the time to read a government impact assessment before but it’s fair to say that they’re not the most riveting reads.


Buried within the report are some important details.


First and foremost, the assessment goes to great lengths stressing the benefits and makes some bold claims about the generational ban. For example, it suggests there will be an increase in productivity equivalent to £24.6 billion within 30 years of implementation, £3.3 billion savings in healthcare usage and £2 billion in reduced social care costs. 


So what’s there to complain about? 


Well, there are the costs to think about. £26 billion in lost tobacco duty for the treasury over the thirty year period that the impact assessment considers; £3.6 billion in costs and lost profits for retailers, manufacturers, and wholesalers (and the lost tax there too). When it comes to benefits for these groups, oddly enough they’re all unquantifiable.


These stated costs are only the tip of the iceberg. Just as interesting are the things not said. 


When it comes to the Department of Health and Social Care, the only acknowledged cost is £1.8 million for communications. The assessment makes no consideration of the fact that smokers take less from the treasury than non-smokers


You might ask yourself why such glaring holes exist. Perhaps part of the reason comes from the report’s reliance on Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), the anti-smoking campaign group. ASH are referenced no less than 38 times in the report and their research is used to underpin the assessment’s key claims. 


But ASH make fundamentally misleading claims to push their agenda. For example, in their briefing for parliamentarians, they claim that “the costs of smoking to the public finances is far greater than tobacco tax revenues.” However, this confuses supposed lost productivity of £14 billion (calculated by “progressive” economist Howard Reed) with an actual cost to the treasury - it is not. At most it’s a cost to the smoker themselves. By that line of reasoning  we should also ban annual leave. After all, the fact that most in the country take weeks off work every year will surely be a drag on the economy. Tobacco revenues on the other hand raised more than £10 billion in 2022-23 against estimated costs to the NHS in England of £2.6 billion a year


The impact assessment’s flaws run deeper than simply headline costs and benefits. 


Despite consistently falling smoking prevalence rates over the last 50 years, from almost 50 per cent in the mid-1970s to just 12.9 per cent in 2022, the baseline scenario of making no further changes to tobacco regulation assumes that this trend will cease over the next 30 years. 


By contrast, ministers claim that their proposed policy will lead to smoking rates effectively hitting zero. This seems to massively underestimate the size, potential growth of, and resilience of illicit tobacco sales. Where tobacco regulation increases, and particularly where prohibition is implemented, black markets boom. In Australia, which has some of the world’s toughest tobacco regulations, police are dealing with serious arson attacks and gangland murders linked to illegal tobacco sales. When South Africa banned tobacco sales during the Covid pandemic, 95 per cent of the market switched to the illegal trade. Even HMRC and the Border Force admit that “supply will always enter the market where a demand exists for it.”


Illegal tobacco sales already cost the UK around £2.8 billion a year in lost revenue. With a generational ban eventually eliminating tobacco revenues entirely, this will leave a massive hole in the public finances. TPA research found that to fill that hole would cost the equivalent of the basic and higher rates of income tax increasing by 1p, and the personal allowance reduced by 1 per cent. Everyone would be picking up the tab for this policy.


Fiscal and enforcement arguments aside, this policy challenges some fundamental principles of our society. We have an established age of adulthood of 18. At 18 you can vote, marry, serve on the frontline in the armed forces, purchase alcohol and (currently) tobacco. We accept that adults are free to make their own choices about how they want to live their lives, healthily or otherwise. A generational ban will introduce two classes of adults with differing rights. We will create the absurd situation where a 45 year old can legally purchase tobacco but a 44 year old cannot. No longer will retailers be able to simply judge people by how old they appear and only require proof from those on the borderline of legality.


This is a very dangerous precedent to set. Who is to say this kind of ban will remain restricted to tobacco?The health lobby industry has been pursuing the same tactics in their war against alcohol, sugar, and even meat, that the anti-smoking crowd have been employing. 


Sunak’s generational smoking ban is bad legislation, based on bad evidence, with bad consequences for us all. Time to stub out this crazy idea once and for all.

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