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Rishi Sunak faces Tory right rebellion over ‘nanny state’ smoking and vape ban

Rishi Sunak faces a backlash from the Tory right over his youth smoking ban, as he also sets out plans to get rid of disposable vapes to protect children’s health.

Liz Truss is leading a rebellion against the prime minister’s ban on the sale of cigarettes to anyone born on or after 1 January 2009.

The former PM attacked the move as “profoundly unconservative” – claiming Tory governments should be against such “nanny state” policies.

But Mr Sunak fired back at his troublesome predecessor, saying: “I don’t think there’s anything unconservative about caring about our children’s health.”

Shares in vaping firms tumbled on Monday, as the Tory leader announced his legislative plan to ban all disposable vapes in Britain.

The PM is also unveiling new powers to restrict vape flavours in an effort to make them less appealing to children.

Mr Sunak has promised a “free vote” on the plan to phase out legal smoking among young people, calling it a “matter of conscience” for his MPs. Labour is backing the smoking ban, so the measure is likely to pass through the Commons with relative ease.

But another rebellion by the Tory right will prove awkward for Mr Sunak – already battling against a right-wing plot against his leadership.

Liz Truss is fighting against Rishi Sunak’s youth smoking ban (Getty Images)
Liz Truss is fighting against Rishi Sunak’s youth smoking ban (Getty Images)

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

She called on Mr Sunak to follow the new government in New Zealand and reverse “this profoundly unconservative policy”. Former Tory trade minister Sir Edward Leigh also last year said he would vote against the “ridiculous” measure.

Another rebel MP mocked Mr Sunak’s links to California, telling The Times: “I’m sure banning vapes goes down brilliantly among the Californian fasting community but our voters want the boats stopping and their wage packets growing.”

Ms Truss and a group of right-wing backbenchers are expected to back an amendment to raise the smoking age to 21 as an alternative to the PM’s plan.

Mr Sunak said the youth smoking ban was “the right long-term thing for our country” – arguing that it could help save hundreds of thousands of lives.

He said: “If we raise the smoking age incrementally, that will mean people will stop smoking. The vast majority of people take up smoking when they are young. If we can stop that start, we will be well on the way to making sure we have the first smoke-free generation in our country.”

Mr Sunak also said the rise of vaping among teenagers was “one of the most worrying trends at the moment” – adding that it was vital to “act before it becomes endemic”.

Electronic vaping devices, ahead of a proposed ban on disposable vapes (Getty Images)
Electronic vaping devices, ahead of a proposed ban on disposable vapes (Getty Images)

The ban on disposable vapes will use powers already in place under the Environmental Protection Act and is expected to come into force early next year.

It is already illegal to sell vapes to anyone under the age of 18, but evidence shows disposable vapes – which are cheaper and sold in smaller, more colourful packaging than refillable ones – are driving the rise in youth vaping.

In 2021, only 7.7 per cent of vapers aged 11 to 17 used disposable vapes, but this increased to 52 per cent in 2022 and 69 per cent in 2023.

Under the new plans, powers will also be introduced to restrict flavours which are specifically marketed at children and ensure that manufacturers produce plainer packaging and change how vapes are displayed in shops, moving them out of children’s sight.

New £100 fines will also be brought in for shops in England and Wales which sell vapes illegally to children. Vaping alternatives – such as nicotine pouches – will also be banned for children.

Trading standards officers will be given powers to act “on the spot” to tackle underage tobacco and vape sales. This builds on a maximum £2,500 fine that local authorities can already impose.

Health secretary Victoria Atkins told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the market around vaping has “developed very, very quickly”.

Asked what her message to Ms Truss is on the youth smoking ban, she said: “Well, this, this is a big change. We absolutely acknowledge this.

“I think it’s rather like the debate that we had a decade ago about whether adults should be able to smoke in cars with their children. There was a lot of debate about that. But are we honestly saying now 10-12 years later that we would go back? Of course not.”

Labour’s Jonathan Ashworth said his party welcomes the disposable vape ban – pointing out that shadow health secretary Wes Streeting had called for it two years ago. “It is important and it’s welcome the government has caught up with us.”