(Bloomberg) -- UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak aims to gradually raise the legal age for consuming cigarettes in a move that would introduce a ban for the next generation.
The age would increase by one year annually so that “a 14-year-old today would never legally be sold a cigarette,” Sunak said at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester on Wednesday. The government also plans to restrict the availability of disposable vapes and will look at the packaging and flavors of those products.
The proposal would have to be approved by the UK parliament, with Sunak saying it will be a free vote, asking politicians to make their decision as “a matter of conscience.” Sunak added that smoking puts pressure on the NHS, with costs of £17 billion ($20.7 billion) a year, and the move would help the UK toward its goal to become smoke-free by 2030.
Shares of Imperial Brands Plc, the biggest seller of cigarettes in the UK, fell as much as 4.3% in London. British American Tobacco Plc, which gets most of its sales from markets outside Britain, was down 1.9%.
The measure would be one of the most aggressive anti-smoking policies in the world, though the UK wouldn’t be the first. New Zealand last year passed a law prohibiting the sale of cigarettes to anyone born after 2008. The current legal age to buy cigarettes in the UK is 18.
Tobacco companies are racing to offer alternatives, such as vapes, devices that heat tobacco and oral nicotine. Sunak said the UK must “act before vaping becomes endemic,” given that one in five children have used the products.
“The proposal to ban the legal sale of cigarettes over time threatens significant unintended consequences,” Imperial Brands said in a statement to Bloomberg. “On vaping, we will continue to engage with the government to create effective policies which prevent youth access.”
British American Tobacco said it supports “the government’s ambition to further reduce smoking rates,” while noting the move would add a burden on the police to enforce more tobacco control policies.
The plans are negative for Imperial Brands and Japan Tobacco Inc. because of its large exposure to UK combustibles, while a “clear positive” for British American Tobacco given the company’s minimal presence in that segment and leadership in non-disposable vapes, Jefferies analyst Owen Bennett said in a note.
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 a report commissioned for the government last year. The report also said smokers in the most economically deprived parts of the UK devote a disproportionate amount of their income to tobacco, with the average smoker in northeast England spending more than 10% of their income on smoking.
“Raising the age of sale on tobacco products is a critical step on the road to creating the first ever smokefree generation,” Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive officer, said in a statement released by the Science Media Centre.
(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.)
--With assistance from Andy Hoffman and Joe Easton.
(Updates with BAT comments in eighth paragraph and analyst comments in third-to-last paragraph.)
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