The danger in Rishi Sunak’s generational smoking ban

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Rishi Sunak

By Ian Paisley Jr.

Ian Paisley Jnr.

In October last year, Rishi Sunak announced a generational ban on smoking. The policy will raise the minimum age at which you can legally buy cigarettes by one year, every year. In just a few years, shopkeepers will have to differentiate between, say, 31 and 32 year old adults, based on if they were born before or after the arbitrary 2009 cut-off date. Eventually, no one, including fully grown adults, will be able to purchase cigarettes.
Last year, the leaders of 88 retail companies including Tesco, Greggs, Ikea and Aldi wrote to the Home Secretary after a sharp rise in attacks on shop staff. Through my work as vice chair of the parliamentary group for retail and high streets, I was shocked to hear that there were 867 violent or abusive incidents affecting retailers across the United Kingdom last year. Most people working in retail shops, including average corner shops, get abused at some point.
A smoke-free generation may be the intention, but it’s the unintended consequences, including the risk of increased violence against shopkeepers, that I am worried about. The generational ban will put shopkeepers at risk, deprive public services of cash, and weaken our Union.
A survey conducted by the British Retail Consortium identified that checking for proof of age often triggers this violence. Under the generational ban, this will become a daily occurrence. The ban criminalises tobacco sales to anyone born after 2009, even when they are over 18.
Shopkeepers will have to ask fully grown adults for ID to prove they are the “right age”, or potentially face criminal charges. This will undoubtedly lead to more violence against local shopkeepers, which is already at record levels.
I have raised these issues before. In November last year, I asked the Prime Minister about reports from the British Independent Retailers Association, suggesting that 82% of retailers do not even bother reporting physical attacks on their staff.
In his response, the PM talked about his experience working at his mum’s shop, growing up. But no one would want their child working in a shop where they face an increased risk of violence.
That is not the only unintended consequence of the ban. The ban will likely fuel demand for illegal cigarettes, as buying them legally becomes more difficult. The government already estimates that 33% of all hand rolled tobacco sold in the UK is illegally smuggled in, and since 2018, £9.3 billion in tax revenue has been lost to the illicit trade.
The generational ban threatens to add considerable demand for illegal tobacco, depriving the government of funds for roads, police, and other vital functions.
Finally, it’s not clear how such a ban would be implemented in Northern Ireland, how it delivers for, or could even be imposed on, the people of Northern Ireland. Legally speaking, the sale of tobacco products in Northern Ireland is regulated not by the UK government but by EU law. Sunak’s own Windsor Framework guarantees that.
Practically speaking, a generational ban in Northern Ireland would create an absurd situation whereby people living in County Armagh, County Fermanagh and County Londonderry could simply drive a few miles over the border to the local convenience shop or filling station in the Republic of Ireland and purchase cigarettes there.
The government must now find other ways of preventing underage smoking. This generational ban risks a wave of attacks on shopkeepers, deprives public services of the cash they need, and gambles on the future of our Union.
The writer, Ian Paisley Jr. is the Democratic Unionist Party MP for North Antrim, and Vice Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Retail Crime, Safe and Sustainable High Streets.

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