Sunak’s smoking ban will outlast him even if implementation struggles

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Good morning. Yesterday I wrote that the change in Conservative attitudes to smoking — from a party where the overwhelming majority of MPs opposed the ban on smoking in enclosed public places in 2006, to one where a large minority did — is a sign that, unless Rishi Sunak’s phased smoking ban proves impossible to implement, it is here to stay.

Many of you pointed out that this is a pretty big “unless”. Some thoughts on that below.

Inside Politics is edited by Georgina Quach. Read the previous edition of the newsletter here. Please send gossip, thoughts and feedback to

The smoking, gone

One of the major success stories in public health is the huge decline in the proportion of people who smoke. In 1948, 82 per cent of men smoked. (The number of women smokers peaked much later, in the mid-1960s, at 45 per cent.) Now, according to the latest data for the UK from the Office for National Statistics, just 14.6 per cent of men and 11.2 per cent of women do. Among the adult population as a whole, smoking has gone from a majority activity to one that just 12.9 per cent of the country does.

That is not far off the 9.5 per cent of people in England and Wales who, again per the ONS, used some form of illegal drug in the past 12 months (with eight in 10 of those who did taking cannabis). We might reasonably argue that at least some people who take illegal drugs will be reluctant to tell the ONS and that we should assume that the “illegal figure” is at least a touch higher than the declared 9.5 per cent. In addition, 24 per cent of people in England aged 16 to 19 reported having vaped at least once a month in 2022 — below the legal age.

The British government has, since 2000, had a dedicated strategy to reduce the sale of smuggled tobacco: in 2005-6, the illicit market share was 21.7 per cent, by 2020-21 it had fallen to 16 per cent. In fairness, assessments of that relatively modest fall do need to take into account that taxes on tobacco have risen in both real and absolute terms in that time. Still, taken together, I think we should be clear-eyed about the ability of legal prohibitions to eradicate smoking entirely and the difficulty of enforcing them.

But I also think we shouldn’t assume that this means Rishi Sunak’s phased ban on smoking will be unworkable enough that support for it collapses either in the country at large or in Parliament.

There is not a great political clamour in the UK to legalise cannabis — I don’t think that the UK’s current approach to illegal drugs, and cannabis in particular, can be said to be working well. But nor is it working so badly that there is much prospect of either the Conservatives or Labour changing their policy position on it. And I think Sunak’s phased ban on smoking will most likely go the same way.

Now try this

I have been saving up Nora Ephron’s novel Heartburn for my flight tomorrow, but I have poor impulse control, so I started reading it on the bus home. I am enjoying it a great deal.

Top stories today

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  • NI in the sky | Sunak has been warned by the IMF to take much tougher action to rein in the UK’s public debt. It comes after Jeremy Hunt told the FT the government would like to cut taxes in an autumn fiscal event “if we can”. He has vowed to go further if the Tories win the general election expected this year by eventually scrapping national insurance contributions.

  • Bitter pill | Drug shortages in the UK more than doubled between 2020 and 2023 as Brexit “exacerbated” the country’s ability to tackle squeezes in medicine supplies, according to research by the Nuffield Trust.

  • Rwanda ping pong continues | The House of Lords insisted on further changes to the government’s flagship Rwanda asylum bill, dashing Sunak’s hopes of the measure becoming law this week.

  • Tory MP loses whip over alleged misuse of funds | Mark Menzies is under investigation over allegations that he misused campaign funds and abused his position after making a late-night phone call saying he’d been locked up by “bad people” who were demanding thousands of pounds, the Times’s Billy Kenber revealed.

Below is the Financial Times’ live-updating UK poll-of-polls, which combines voting intention surveys published by major British pollsters. Visit the FT poll-tracker page to discover our methodology and explore polling data by demographic including age, gender, region and more.

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