I have never shied away from being vocal about the impact of tobacco on our society.
So you can imagine my delight when, at a speech on Wednesday at the Conservative Party Conference, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced landmark plans to curb smoking for good in England, representing the biggest political shift in tobacco policy in over a decade.
The announcement included plans to raise the age of sale of tobacco so that no child turning 14 today will ever be able to be legally sold tobacco products in England. It was also announced that the UK Government would increase its funding of stop smoking services, mass media awareness-raising campaigns and enforcement.
These measures – if implemented – would be a critical step in achieving a Smokefree UK. As a charity, we’ve been tirelessly campaigning for changes just like this for a decade – informing and influencing the government to keep cancer at the top of their agenda, publishing research in support of our policy asks, and culminating in our Smokefree campaign.
So, what do these announcements mean for our goal of preventing more cancers, and where do we go from here?
The impact of tobacco
Nothing would have a bigger impact on reducing the number of preventable deaths in the UK than ending smoking.
Smoking is still the biggest preventable cause of cancer and death in the UK. It causes around 150 cancer cases each day in the UK and kills one person every 5 minutes.
We know that tobacco puts huge pressure on our NHS and our economy – but most importantly it also costs lives.
I, like many of our supporters, have lost loved ones to tobacco-related illness, all the while the industry reaped the profits from selling their deadly products.
My grandfather smoked for almost all of his life, eventually dying from cancer. This impact was felt widely across my family and represents just one of the estimated 9 million deaths caused by smoking in the UK since the 1960s.
Like the majority of people who smoke, he became addicted to smoking as a child.
That’s why I’m so pleased with Wednesday’s announcements.
Creating the first smoke-free generation
One announcement that received widespread coverage was the Prime Minister’s proposal to raise the age of sale of tobacco by one year every year.
What this means in practice is that children turning 14 this year (so born on or after 1 January 2009) will never be able to be legally sold cigarettes. This wouldn’t be about criminalizing the purchase of tobacco by these young people, but rather the sale of these products.
This proposed measure has the potential to phase out smoking in young people almost completely as early as 2040 according to UK Government. If implemented, it could prevent people from ever taking up smoking, thereby protecting them from a potential lifetime of addiction, ill health and disease. Critically, these benefits would also be felt for all subsequent generations, leaving a remarkable legacy.
This measure was first suggested last year in an independent review led by Dr Javed Khan that Cancer Research UK and our partners within the Smokefree Action Coalition helped to shape and endorse, and a similar law has recently been passed in New Zealand.
Of critical importance, new funding was also announced to ensure better enforcement of age of sale laws and to combat the illicit trade of tobacco. This will be vital in better enforcing existing laws, but also in ensuring that the proposed change can be effective in the future.
More funding for stop smoking services, mass media campaigns and enforcement
Another exciting announcement was that the UK Government would be increasing funding for the measures and services that help people quit smoking, another key step that we have been lobbying for over many years.
Indeed, the government announced that they would be more than doubling the funding available (to around £138 million) for local stop smoking services to support a total of around 360,000 people a year to quit smoking. This is hugely welcome news, as we know that these services give people who smoke the best chance of quitting.
An additional £5 million this year (and £15 million a year subsequently) was also announced to fund national stop smoking campaigns that help encourage people who smoke to quit and signpost them to support available.
We know that these measures work and are cost-effective, but they have not been sufficiently funded in the past. So their implementation, which was recommended in Khan’s independent review, is extremely positive.
Measures to curb youth vaping
It was also announced that later this month, the UK Government would be consulting on measures to reduce the availability and appeal of vaping to children. This will include looking at restrictions on how e-cigarettes are packaged and displayed in shops to ensure they are not targeted at children.
Based on the current evidence, we know that e-cigarettes are far less harmful than smoking and can help people who smoke to quit, so it was good to see that the government also said they would be striking a balance to ensure that vapes are still available to adults to help them quit smoking.
Campaigning for change
Wednesday’s announcement is not just a win for Cancer Research UK, but also our incredible partners and supporters who have been campaigning and working alongside us.
This year alone we have made huge strides in our goal to end smoking-related cancers.
To mark No Smoking Day in March, over 2000 supporters signed an open letter to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Steve Barclay, and Chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, asking them to tackle tobacco in England. We also supported a debate in Westminster Hall, led by Conservative MP Bob Blackman, as well as publishing a video on why funding for Stop Smoking Services matters.