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Australia Debates Following UK’s Lead on Tobacco Sales Ban for Younger Generations



The United Kingdom has taken another step towards banning the sale of tobacco products to anyone born after January 1, 2009, just months after New Zealand abandoned a similar policy.

Overnight, the UK House of Commons passed a bill containing the proposed ban 383 votes to 67.

The debate centred on the cost of smoking to the public health system, principles of freedom of choice and whether addiction hampered freedom of choice.

The bill still needs to go through several more votes and pass the House of Lords, but this can be assured in the second half of the year given the Labour Party’s support. It would be the first national-based laws of its type to be implemented.

It would not ban vaping but would introduce greater restrictions, including on marketing towards young people.

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is a strong supporter of the reforms but he allowed his Conservative MPs a free vote – and 57 voted against it.

They included former prime minister Liz Truss, who was one of the first to speak in opposition to the change.

She said the ‘idea that we can protect adults from themselves is hugely problematic’.

Others followed a similar line, including former minister Robert Jenrick, who argued it was against the principle of equality under the law.

Another argued that ‘nanny states do not raise warriors, they create weak individuals’. But these voices were overwhelmingly outnumbered.

UK Health Secretary Victoria Atkins said the laws were about preventing hospital admissions and reducing smoking rates among 14- to 30-year-olds to close to zero by 2040.

‘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,’ she said.

‘We are creating a smoke-free generation.’

New Zealand passed legislation in 2022 that had the same effect and it was believed to be the inspiration for the UK’s laws.

It was due to be implemented from July this year but in November the new National Party government announced it would be scrapped.

It was part of a coalition deal between the Nationals and populist party New Zealand First.

The suite of measures – including reduced nicotine content and restrictions on retailers – were axed by March this year, with Finance Minister Nicola Willis saying revenue from cigarette sales would go towards promised tax cuts.

‘We have to remember that the changes to the smoke-free legislation had a significant impact on the government books,’ she said.

Opposition parties argued the financial impact on the health system far outweighed any savings for the budget.

The government also argued reversing the planned ban would prevent growth in the tobacco black market.

In Australia, tobacco sales, smoking bans and advertising restrictions have mostly been regulated by individual states.

Both the UK and New Zealand are unitary states, meaning broad-based reforms can be implemented nationally.

But the Australian government was able to implement plain packaging legislation in 2012 that covered all states and territories, and it survived legal challenges which mostly centred on intellectual property rights. It could be different for blanket bans on sales for people of a certain age.

States have been responsible for policies such as banning smoking from inside restaurants and hotel dining areas, licensed venues, inside vehicles with children, at sporting events, in prisons and at parks, beaches and playgrounds. Kathryn Barnsley, of SmokeFree Tasmania, said advice from a 2015 attempt in Tasmania to implement a similar age-based ban on tobacco sales indicated it had to be done by the states.

‘Whilst the federal government could show leadership and the minister could encourage states to implement this particular mechanism, the federal government couldn’t actually do it themselves,’ she said.

Last year, federal Health Minister Mark Butler said the government would be watching the UK and New Zealand plans ‘with interest’. In 2015, Ivan Dean, who was an upper house member in Tasmania, attempted to bring in laws to ban the sale, loan, gift or supply of tobacco to anyone born after January 1, 2000.

Tasmania had – and continues to have – among the highest rates of smoking in Australia. They increased from 12 per cent in 2019 to 15 per cent in 2022. Mr Dean’s bill attracted significant opposition from the tobacco industry, including briefings by Imperial Tobacco’s Andrew Gregson.

At the time, Mr Gregson told the ABC that Mr Dean’s bill would impact on the legal rights of retailers.

‘It’s Tasmanian businesses and Tasmanian jobs that will suffer as a result,’ he said.

Another lobbyist argued that the ‘Anzacs … went to war to give us the opportunity to be a free country’, perhaps foreshadowing how a similar debate would play out in Australia in 2024.

The bill didn’t have the numbers to pass.

Mr Dean said it was his biggest regret from his time in parliament. He believes the federal government should explore its options. ‘It’s a national issue. It impacts on everybody in the country. It’s not just a state issue,’ he said.

While bans on the sale of tobacco products to people born after a certain date haven’t been implemented at a national level anywhere, they have been attempted at a local level.

In 2021, Brookline – a town of about 60,000 people in the US state of Massachusetts – introduced a by-law to ban the sale of tobacco to anyone born after January 1, 2000. Last month, the state’s Supreme Judicial Court upheld the ban after a legal challenge by convenience store owners.

In her decision, Justice Dalila Wendlandt found that towns had a ‘legitimate interest’ in mitigating tobacco use among minors as a health measure.

Other towns in Massachusetts — and some as far away as California — are weighing up introducing similar bans.

Rachel Adams

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