LONDON — Britain is poised to launch a world-leading project to create a “smoke-free generation,” after the House of Commons on Tuesday passed a bill banning the sale of cigarettes to anyone born in 2009 or later.

For years anti-smoking health experts have relied on education campaigns and higher taxes to snuff out the habit. Now Britain is going all in on a ban that could spell the end of tobacco here — though wily companies are quickly striving to deliver their nicotine via less harmful delivery systems.

Older smokers in Britain would be allowed to continue to buy tobacco until they quit — or die. But the legislation, which must go through a few more steps before it becomes law, would raise the legal age for purchase each year, so that the prohibition would follow younger people indefinitely.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak — who does not drink alcohol or smoke, and who is reported to fast one day a week — has led the fight, arguing that smoking kills tens of thousands of people each year, with most smokers starting in their teens.

But while his signature health legislation passed 383-67, with the support of Labour lawmakers, it has fomented revolt within his own Conservative Party and fed a debate about what Britain’s conservatives should stand for.

Sunak’s predecessor, Liz Truss, the shortest-serving prime minister in British history, dubbed the bill the ill-considered work of a “nanny state.”

In the House of Commons on Tuesday, Truss called the ban “emblematic of a technocratic establishment in this country that wants to limit people’s freedom.” She denounced “health police.”

Truss said the idea that the government should “protect adults from themselves is hugely problematic.”

Smoking itself would not be subject to fines. Just the sales of those products — with fines for retailers.

Vaping products would be excluded from the ban, but the legislation does seek to make vaping less attractive, by changing the packaging — from today’s candy-colored pastels — and by outlawing the popular disposable inhalers that can be found littering the country’s sidewalks.

As in much of the world, smoking rates have declined in Britain (as vaping has increased). But still, about 1 out of every 8 people in Britain smoked last year — some 6.4 million people. Smoking rates among teens remain high, with more than 12 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds smoking in England.

Sunak, anticipating defections, allowed a “free vote” in Parliament, meaning that Conservative lawmakers could vote and express their opinions against the government without punishment.

Business secretary Kemi Badenoch was the first cabinet member to say she would be voting against her boss. She said she objected to an approach “where people born a day apart will have permanently different rights” and put the burden of enforcement on private businesses.

Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson — who has occupied himself with a newspaper column and speaking gigs since being pressured out of Parliament — pointed to the tobacco ban as a prime example of what’s wrong with his Conservative Party right now.

“When I look at some of the things we are doing now, or that are being done in the name of conservatism, I think they’re absolutely nuts,” he told a gathering in Canada last week.

“We’re banning cigars. What is the point of banning — the party of Winston Churchill wants to ban cigars! Donnez-moi un break, as they say in Quebec. It’s just mad,” he said, using one of his schoolboy quasi-French phrases.

Chris Whitty, chief medical officer for England, who served under Johnson during the pandemic, said his old boss has got it wrong.

“Those people who say it’s all about choice completely misunderstand smoking,” he told ITV on Tuesday, stressing that nicotine is highly addictive and that smokers find it extremely difficult to quit.

“Calling things names isn’t really a serious argument,” Whitty said, asking who would want to return to the “very, very much worse” health of British citizens in the 1940s, when smoking was rife.

In an opinion piece in the Guardian, Whitty charged that lawmakers were being aggressively lobbied by tobacco and vape companies to frame the issue as one of “choice” vs. “ban.”

Whitty said the tobacco industry was the only one to gain from cancers and heart disease. “They try to link their products to ‘choice’ despite the fact their sales are based on addiction.”

Other Conservative Party figures, including Kenneth Clarke, a former health minister who now serves in the House of Lords, worried the measure might be hard to enforce.

He imagined a time — decades to come — when “you will get to a stage where if you are 42 years of age, you will be able to buy them but someone aged 41 will not be allowed to.”

Clarke told the Telegraph newspaper, “Does that mean you will have to produce your birth certificate? It may prove very difficult to enforce. Future generations will have to see whether it works or not.”

Sunak’s legislation was inspired by New Zealand, which last year passed the toughest anti-tobacco laws in the world, intended to ban sales to those born after Jan. 1, 2009, as well as cut nicotine content and slash the number of tobacco retailers.

Instead, the country’s new government in February announced that it will scrap the rules to help pay for tax cuts — and because, in its estimation, the ban could create an illegal black market that would be hard to control.


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