‘No liberty in addiction’, Health Secretary warns MPs sceptical of smoking ban

There is “no liberty in addiction”, the Health Secretary warned as she urged sceptical Conservative MPs to back the Government’s plans to ban young people from ever smoking.

Victoria Atkins claimed MPs have a “duty” to protect the next generation from the illnesses and harms caused by tobacco, as the Tobacco and Vapes Bill had its first hearing in the Commons on Tuesday afternoon.

The proposals, announced by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak last October, would make it illegal to sell tobacco products to anyone born after January 1 2009, with the aim of creating a “smoke-free” generation.

Senior Tories, including former prime ministers Liz Truss and Boris Johnson, have already criticised the proposals because of its impact on people’s freedoms, although the Bill is likely to clear its first Commons hurdle with Labour support.

Ms Atkins told the Commons: “I totally understand the concerns of fellow Conservatives. We are not in the habit of banning things, we do not like that, and so we will only bring these powers in when we are convinced, following a no doubt robust debate with the intellectual self-confidence that we have to have such debates on this side of the House… we come to the conclusion that 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.”

She added: “That is why, through this Bill, we are creating a smoke-free generation that will guarantee that no-one who is turning 15 or younger this year will ever be legally sold tobacco, saving them from the misery of repeated attempts to give up, making our economy more productive and building an NHS that delivers faster, simpler and fairer care.

“I would argue it is our responsibility, indeed our duty, to protect the next generation and this is what this Bill will do.”

Ms Atkins sought to paint a picture of how 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.”

Former prime minister Ms Truss claimed it was a “virtue-signalling piece of legislation” and said the Bill was evidence of a “technocratic establishment” that wished to limit freedom.

She claimed Labour’s support for the Bill contrasted with attempts by opposition MPs to prolong a Friday Commons debate, which meant they ran out of time to discuss her private member’s Bill aimed at legislating against use of puberty-blockers for children.

The Tory MP said: “These 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.”

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 worse an absurdity.”

Former minister Sir Jake Berry meanwhile claimed statistics show twice as many schoolchildren smoke cannabis as smoke tobacco.

“It is already for all of us, not just children, all of us to smoke cannabis. If a ban really worked, how can she explain those statistics?” the Rossendale and Darwen MP asked.

Steve Brine, the Conservative chairman of the Health Select Committee, meanwhile said he would be supporting the Bill.

The former health minister said: “If you are a Conservative and 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 is giving its “wholehearted” support to the Bill.

He added that his party is “only too happy to defend the Health Secretary (Victoria Atkins) against the siren voices of big tobacco” gathered on the Tory benches.

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