Rishi Sunak braces for Conservative rebellion over ‘smoke-free generation’ bill

The prime minister is bracing for a significant rebellion from his party over plans to ban young people from smoking.

The proposed legislation would ensure that those aged 18 or over can still buy cigarettes without legal repercussions; but it would be an offence to sell tobacco products to anyone born after 1 January 2009.

The plan, announced as one of Rishi Sunak‘s three key policies at Conservative Party conference last year, means children aged 15 or younger today will never legally be able to buy a cigarette.

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The bill has attracted criticism from more libertarian Conservatives, including former prime minister Liz Truss, who has described the plans as “profoundly unconservative”. 

Boris Johnson, another former PM, has branded the move “nuts”.

Speaking to the Canada Strong and Free Networking Conference in Ottawa, Johnson criticised policies being carried out “in the name of conservatism”.

He said: “And when I look at some of the things that we are doing now, or that are being done in the name of conservatism, I think they are absolutely nuts.”

Singling out Sunak’s smoking policy, he added: “When the party of Winston Churchill wants to ban cigars, … it’s just mad.”

In January, Truss argued a Conservative government “should not be seeking to extend the nanny state”.

Urging ministers to reverse the “profoundly unconservative policy”, she declared: “While the state has a duty to protect children from harm, in a free society, adults must be able to make their own choices about their own lives.

“Banning the sale of tobacco products to anyone born in 2009 or later will create an absurd situation where adults enjoy different rights based on their birthdate. A Conservative government should not be seeking to extend the nanny state. 

“This will only give succour to those who wish to ban further choices of which they don’t approve.”

Conservative MPs have been granted a free vote on the legislation, and several are expected to oppose it when it has its first full debate in the House of Commons on Tuesday.

Sir Simon Clarke, another Conservative critic of the plan, has said he believes the ban could fuel a black market and create an “unmanageable challenge for the authorities” to enforce it.

The former cabinet minister told the BBC the ban “actually risks making smoking cooler”.

Some serving ministers are also considering rebelling over the legislation, including business secretary and darling of the Conservative grassroots, Kemi Badenoch, according to a report in The Times. 

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However, the legislation is likely to progress unchanged with the backing of the Labour Party.

Health and social care secretary Victoria Atkins has said the bill would “save thousands of lives”, help the NHS and improve the UK’s productivity.

Atkins said: “The truth is that there is no safe level of tobacco consumption. It is uniquely harmful and that is why we are taking this important action today to protect the next generation.”

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