Public call for tougher tobacco sale rules

People in Britain strongly support restricting the sale of tobacco near schools and raising the legal age of sale to 21, a study finds.


Researchers examined data gathered from some 1,700 adults monthly in England from 2006 and 2,200 adults each month from England, Scotland and Wales, since 2020.

The Smoking Toolkit Study – organised by Cancer Research UK and SPECTRUM, a research consortium – asked for participants’ views on potential policies for targeting the availability of tobacco and cigarettes in the UK.

Licenses revoked

Data captured from September 2021, showed that 89.6 per cent of those surveyed supported retailers having their license revoked if they sold tobacco products to those under-age, and 69.9 per cent backed restrictions on the sale of cigarettes and tobacco near schools.

The study, published in Tobacco Control, was led by University College London in collaboration with the University of Edinburgh and Cardiff University.

Legal age

Nearly half of those surveyed (49.2 per cent) thought that the legal age of sale for cigarettes and tobacco should be raised to 21, compared with just under a third who were opposed to the idea (30.7 per cent).

Participants were also in favour of reducing the number of retailers selling tobacco in neighbourhoods that already had a high density of tobacco retailers – with almost half (46.5 per cent) showing their support, compared with less than a quarter (23.3 per cent) who disagreed.

Government objectives

There are around 6.9 million adult cigarette smokers in the UK, who spend approximately £15.6 billion a year on legal and illicit tobacco.

Currently the law prohibits the sale of tobacco products to those under the age of 18.

Previous studies have shown that a ban on the sale of tobacco products near schools could stop children from taking up the habit.

In 2019, the UK Government set an objective for England to be smoke-free by 2030, meaning only 5 per cent of the population would smoke by then. However, a recent report highlighted that particularly poorer areas may struggle to reach this target unless the rate of decline of people who smoke is accelerated by 40 per cent.

Across the UK nations targets have been set to radically reduce the proportion of people that smoke over the next decade. This new research shows that the public strongly support the introduction of new measures needed to meet these ambitious targets, including reducing the local availability of tobacco products.

"Having wide scale public support to introduce restrictions on the sales of tobacco should embolden the UK and devolved governments to introduce new policies restricting access to tobacco, particularly amongst children, and ensure future generations are tobacco free.

Niamh ShorttPersonal Chair of Health Geographies, School of GeoSciences, University of Edinburgh.

Our findings indicate that policies to restrict tobacco retail near schools, and for tobacco retailer licences would receive strong majority support from the British public if legislated.

"However, a substantial proportion of respondents report having no opinion either way on these policies, suggesting there is potential to grow public support through clearer communication on the evidence and benefits of these policies.

"Moreover, support for tobacco availability policy may grow, and opposition diminish, if policies are demonstrated to be effective, and as future generations grow up without cigarettes.

Dr Loren KockLead author, UCL Institute of Epidemiology & Health.

Related links

School of GeoSciences 

UCL Institute of Epidemiology & Health    

Making smoking obsolete: summary