Would e-cigarettes escape a generational ban on tobacco purchases in England?

A newly proposed generational ban on tobacco purchases in England may accelerate the already dropping cigarette smoking rates among young people in the country.

Raising the legal age to buy cigarettes every year would help the government to get far beyond its reportedly unrealistic 2030 smoke-free target of a 5% or lower population-wide prevalence, albeit by the later date of 2040.

Possibly inspired by a similar reform launched in New Zealand at the end of last year, the plan, if approved by Parliament, will make it illegal to sell tobacco products to anyone born on or after 1st January 2009 in their entire lifetime.

Just as in New Zealand, the new proposed measures seem likely to exclude vaping devices and liquids. This would be consistent with the UK government’s harm-reduction policies, which promote e-cigarettes as a smoking-cessation tool among adults.

It would also be in line with recently published UK studies acknowledging vaping’s role in harm-reduction policies and showing how much money it could save the National Health Service (NHS) if all cigarette smokers switched to e-cigarettes.

Vaping, in other words, seems to be among the right instruments to address concerns over the human and financial costs of smoking expressed by prime minister Rishi Sunak, and it might well seem reasonable for his government not to introduce new limitations on adult access to vaping products.


For the greater good, or ‘smoking apartheid’?

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Join in to hear about news, events, and podcasts in the sector

    See more


    But novel nicotine products may not be completely untouched by Sunak’s ramped-up anti-tobacco measures. It is unclear whether or not heated tobacco would be included in the generational ban (it isn’t in New Zealand), and some restrictions – again, their precise shape uncertain – on disposable e-cigarettes and flavours seem likely.

    It also remains open to question how the restrictions will be perceived by supporters of safer alternatives to smoking, especially given that the possibility of a disposable vape ban has already attracted such harsh criticism among vaping advocates and the industry.

    Sunak’s proposal, announced at the annual conference of the Conservative Party, took many by surprise, but it was generally welcomed by the public health sector and politicians of all parties. Still, it also provoked some criticism among the prime minister’s party.

    While former prime minister Boris Johnson labelled the age ban as “smoking apartheid” in his weekly column in the Daily Mail, other, less colourful criticism was focused on the legal basis of a measure that would deny part of the adult population access to a legal product, and on how this may fuel a black market in a country far less isolated than New Zealand.

    It is even possible, though perhaps unlikely, that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland may not be on the same page when it comes to implementing a generational smoking ban. Sunak’s proposals apply, technically, only to England, and the other three constituent countries of the UK must make up their own minds.

    Finally, all of this comes against a background where tobacco smoking rates are already declining fast among young people. A generational age ban, which could be complicated and costly to enforce, may not be perceived as an urgent need or as a political priority by UK voters.

    – Tiziana Cauli ECigIntelligence staff

    Photo: Torsten Dederichs

    Tiziana Cauli

    Senior reporter/health & science editor
    Tiziana is an Italian journalist from Sardinia. She has worked for both international and local media in Italy, South Africa, France, Spain, the UK, Lebanon and Belgium. She also worked as a communications manager for several international NGOs in the humanitarian sector. Tiziana holds a degree in Political Science and a PhD in African Studies from the University of Cagliari and she’s a graduate of the Carlo De Martino school of journalism in Milan.