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Truss: Smoking Ban a Bid by ‘Technocratic Establishment’ to Limit Freedom

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Bill to create ’smoke free generation’ passes first reading with support from Labour despite concerns over its practicalities and on libertarian grounds.

Former Prime Minister Liz Truss has said the government’s bill banning the sale of cigarettes to young people is a “virtue-signalling piece of legislation” arising from a desire by the “technocratic establishment” to “limit people’s freedom” as it passed its first reading in Parliament on Tuesday.

MPs voted the first reading of the bill through by 383 to 67, with several MPs in support speaking about their own personal battles with tobacco addiction or watching loved ones suffer from smoking-related illnesses.

The bill proposes on-the-spot fines of £100 for shops caught selling tobacco products to those underage, with the proceeds going to local authorities.

Ms. Truss told the Commons, “What we’re seeing, is we’re seeing not just on tobacco but also on sugar, also on alcohol, also on meat, a group of people who want to push an agenda which is about limiting people’s personal freedom, and I think that is fundamentally wrong.”

MPs spent much of Tuesday debating the Tobacco and Vapes Bill, which aims create a “smoke-free generation” by making it illegal to sell tobacco products to anyone born after Jan. 1, 2009. The act of smoking itself will not be criminalised, but if the bill eventually passes into law, the age at which cigarettes can be bought will increase by one year annually.

This would mean children who are currently aged 15 or younger will never legally be allowed to buy cigarettes, but someone born on or before Dec. 31, 2008 will be able to once they turn 18.

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If the bill becomes law, some adults will have to prove their age for life to buy cigarettes, which some see as an infringement of privacy and civil liberties, while other MPs highlighted the arbitrary nature of the age cut-off point, calling it “absurd.”

‘Finger-Wagging Nannying Control Freaks’

In a warning to Tory colleagues, Ms. Truss claimed there were enough “finger-wagging, nannying control freaks” on the opposition benches willing to support the proposals, urging Conservatives to instead “stand by our principles and our ideals.”

Ms. Truss told the Commons: “The reason I am speaking today is I am very concerned that this policy being put forward is emblematic of a technocratic establishment in this country that wants to limit people’s freedom, and I think that is a problem.”

She added: “It is very important that until people have decision-making capability while they are growing up, that we protect them. But I think the whole idea that we can protect adults from themselves is hugely problematic and it effectively infantilises people, and that is what has been going on.”

“And what we’re seeing, is we’re seeing not just on tobacco but also on sugar, also on alcohol, also on meat, a group of people who want to push an agenda which is about limiting people’s personal freedom, and I think that is fundamentally wrong.”

Referring to former New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, she told MPs, “The only other country in the world where such a bill was brought forward was New Zealand under a very left-wing prime minister and that bill has now been reversed under the new Conservative government in New Zealand.”

“And I have a message for my colleagues on this side of the House. If people want to vote for finger-wagging, nannying control freaks, there are plenty of them to choose from on the benches opposite, and that’s the way they will vote.”

Referring to the damning review into children’s gender services published last week, she said those in favour of the bill are “the same people who are saying that we should in the future be banning cigarettes for 30-year-olds and yet they won’t vote to ban puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones for the under-18s.”

Kemi Badenoch, minister for women and equalities, arrives to attend the weekly meeting of Cabinet ministers in 10 Downing Street in London on March 26, 2024. (Carl Court/Getty Images)
Kemi Badenoch, minister for women and equalities, arrives to attend the weekly meeting of Cabinet ministers in 10 Downing Street in London on March 26, 2024. (Carl Court/Getty Images)

Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch was the first Cabinet minister to break ranks and reveal she would not back the bill.

Ms. Badenoch, who is also minister for women and equalities, said on social media platform X, “We should not treat legally competent adults differently in this way, where people born a day apart will have permanently different rights.”

Medics in Favour of Ban

The government says smoking remains the leading preventable cause of death, disability, and ill health, with official figures linking the habit to around 80,000 deaths per year with the economic cost estimated at £17 billion annually.

All of the MPs with a medical background who spoke in the debate were in favour of banning the sale of tobacco for the rising generation, however.

Many parliamentarians, whether or not they supported the bill, had concerns about how the proposed ban would work in practice and the impact on shops.

Some called for the government to go further, including Steve Double, Conservative MP for St. Austell and Newquay, who said that vaping should be banned outright as more evidence is emerging about the damage it does to health, and because young people are more likely to take up vaping than smoking more expensive cigarettes.

Health Secretary Victoria Atkins claimed MPs have a “duty” to protect the next generation from the illnesses and harms caused by smoking.

Britain's Health Secretary Victoria Atkins leaves from 10 Downing Street in central London on Jan. 23, 2024. (Daniel Leal/AFP via Getty Images)
Britain’s Health Secretary Victoria Atkins leaves from 10 Downing Street in central London on Jan. 23, 2024. (Daniel Leal/AFP via Getty Images)

Ms. Atkins told the Commons that while she understands the concerns of her fellow Conservatives on the grounds of personal freedom, “there is no liberty in addiction.”

“Nicotine robs people of their freedom to choose. The vast majority of smokers start when they are young, and three-quarters say that if they could turn back the clock they would not have started.”

Ms. Atkins referred to the economic costs, saying that smoking-related illness is treated “nearly every minute of every day” in the NHS.

“There is no safe level of smoking and no safe tobacco product,” she said. “In fact, it is the only product that, if it is consumed as the manufacturer intends, will kill two-thirds of its long-term users.”

‘At Worst an Absurdity’

Conservative former minister Sir John Hayes urged ministers to be “open-minded to how this bill can be improved,” adding, “The idea of a rolling age of consent, for the consequence that someone of 35 will be able to buy tobacco, someone of 34 not, and so on and so forth, is at best a curiosity and at worst an absurdity.”

Jake Berry MP pointed to stats that show twice as many schoolchildren smoke cannabis as smoke tobacco.

He said: “It is already illegal—for all of us, not just children—to smoke cannabis. If a ban really worked, how can [the health secretary] explain those statistics? How can she show that this ban to stop people who are currently 15 will be different from the anti-drugs legislation that we already have?”

Steve Brine, the Conservative chairman of the Health Select Committee, said he backed the bill because, “If a smaller state is your thing … you should be right behind a healthier society, one that needs the state less, one that relies on the state less, one that costs the state less.”

Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said he was “shocked” to see the Conservatives propose a tobacco ban, but confirmed Labour would be giving its “wholehearted” support to the bill.

He added that his party is “only too happy to defend the health secretary against the siren voices of big tobacco,” which he said were gathered on the Tory benches.

A spokeswoman for Number 10 told reporters she thought the prime minister would disagree with Ms. Truss’s comments.

“I think, as he set out right when he first announced this, this is an important change which will save thousands of lives and billions of pounds for the NHS. And the prime minister thinks that that is an important thing to do.”

Asked why Prime Minister Rishi Sunak believes the move is not against Conservative Party instincts, she said, “This has always been a free vote and that’s because he respects that people’s attitudes to smoking is a matter of conscience—and that’s why the approach that we’re taking with this legislation has been in line with previous interventions.”

The bill will now proceed to its second reading.

PA Media contributed to this report

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