Tobacco companies are lobbying MPs to ban smoking, a charity has warned

Tobacco companies are lobbying MPs and peers in a bid to derail Rishi Sunak’s flagship policy of phasing out smoking, the head of Britain’s largest cancer charity says.

The Prime Minister’s landmark legislation – which would ban anyone born after 2009 from buying cigarettes and make England the first country in the world to ban smoking – will be debated in Parliament for the first time on Tuesday.

Michelle Mitchell, the chief executive of Cancer Research UK, said the tobacco industry was working behind the scenes using “a variety of tactics” to try to weaken, delay or even cancel the plans.

The government’s tobacco and vaping bill would prevent anyone who turns 15 this year, or younger, from ever legally purchasing tobacco products.

Mitchell told the Guardian that the “world-leading” legislation was “the most significant shift in public health policy that I can remember” and “could remove the scourge of tobacco from society forever”.

Smoking is the biggest cause of cancer in Britain and worldwide, causing at least 15 different types of the disease, she said. But proposals to introduce a smoking ban for the next generation were privately undermined by tobacco companies.

“We know the tobacco industry is working very hard to dilute the bill,” Mitchell said. “MPs and colleagues have informed us that members of the tobacco industry are trying to make arguments (against) and amendments to the bill as it is being passed by parliament.”

The tobacco industry is lobbying MPs and peers to oppose the legislation and seek support for raising the smoking age from 18 to 21 in a bid to avoid an outright ban on buying cigarettes for anyone turning 15 this year. Mitchell said.

She said tobacco company representatives were also trying to convince politicians to support exemptions from the legislation, “for example by excluding cigars.” Separate attempts were made to delay passage of the bill until after the general election.

Another tactic was to promote the idea of ​​a clause in the bill to guarantee a review of the legislation in the future. The danger is that this could theoretically lead to the smoking ban being overturned, Mitchell said.

“The tobacco industry in Britain and around the world is using the same tactics to oppose, block and delay legislation that has a net negative impact on their business,” she said. “It really is vital that MPs and colleagues don’t get distracted by the noise, not least from the tobacco industry – and really focus on the huge public health benefit that would flow from this.”

Similar legislation was due to come into force in New Zealand, but was withdrawn by the country’s new coalition government in February.

The world’s strictest anti-tobacco rules, previously set to come into effect from July, would have banned sales to people born after 2009, reduced nicotine levels in smoked tobacco products and reduced the number of tobacco retailers by more than 90%. Researchers and campaigners warned that the policy reversal would mean people could die as a result.

Deborah Arnott, the chief executive of Action on Smoking and Health (Ash), said she was not surprised that British MPs and peers were lobbying on the legislation, especially given the global impact it could have on the tobacco industry.

“The tobacco multinationals will fight tooth and nail to block, weaken or at least delay Britain’s historic legislation to raise the retail age, as it poses an existential threat to their business model,” she said.

“They may claim they want a smoke-free future, but the majority of their sales and even more of their profits still come from selling cigarettes, which sell for vast quantities more than the pennies they cost to smoke. to deserve.

“The lesson of all previous tobacco laws is that once they come into force in one country, they quickly spread around the world. That’s what happened with advertising bans, smoke-free laws and plain packaging, and that’s why the big tobacco companies can’t afford to let this legislation pass unchallenged.”

Last week, Boris Johnson branded Sunak’s smoking ban plan as “absolutely crazy”. Speaking at a meeting of Conservatives in Ottawa, Canada, the former prime minister said: “If Winston Churchill’s party wants to ban cigars, donnez-moi un break as they say in Quebec, it is simply madness.”

According to documents seen by the Guardian, some of the world’s largest tobacco companies were among those with hospitality suites at the Canada Strong and Free networking conference.