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Sunak suffers Tory backlash as MPs back legislation to ban smoking

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Rishi Sunak suffered a blow on Tuesday as dozens of Conservative MPs, including several ministers, voted against his flagship legislation to ban smoking by anyone in the UK born after 2009.

The prime minister pledged at last year’s Tory party conference to create the first “smoke-free generation” through a law to stop children aged 14 or younger in 2023 ever being sold cigarettes legally.

On Tuesday evening, MPs approved the government’s tobacco and vapes bill by 383 votes to 67 at its second reading in the House of Commons.

Sunak gave Tory MPs a “free vote” on the legislation, meaning they were not ordered to vote with the government.

A total of 57 Tory MPs voted against the bill, but it was approved because Labour supported the legislation.

Sunak has justified the ban on the basis that smoking causes one in four cancer deaths and kills tens of thousands of people a year, with most people picking up the habit before they turn 20.

The vote was a critical moment for Conservative MPs opposed to the legislation to burnish their credentials as supporters of libertarian values, with some seeking to position themselves as potential future leaders of the party.

Business secretary Kemi Badenoch was among the ministers who voted against the legislation after writing on X that she did not support its approach.

“We should not treat legally competent adults differently in this way,” she said.

Science minister Andrew Griffith, housing minister Lee Rowley and data minister Julia Lopez also voted against the bill.

Senior Tory MPs who abstained included Commons leader Penny Mordaunt and Foreign Office minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan.

In a Commons debate about the bill, dozens of Tory MPs criticised the legislation as unworkable and unconservative.

Former prime minister Liz Truss dubbed the legislation a “nanny state” policy, adding the idea the government could “protect adults from themselves is hugely problematic”.

“My real fear is that this is not the final stage that the health police want to push,” said Truss, adding that people “want to be able to make their own decisions about what they eat, what they drink, and how they enjoy themselves”.

Former minister Sir Simon Clarke described the legislation as “fundamentally illiberal”, adding: “I don’t believe it’s my right to tell my fellow citizens that they can’t . . . [smoke] any more than it’s their right to tell me that I can’t have a glass of red wine with dinner.”

Opinion polls suggest the Conservatives who voted against the bill were out of step with their own voters.

A survey by Savanta found nearly 70 per cent of people who voted Conservative in 2019 supported the legislation.

In addition to stopping children aged 14 or younger last year ever being sold cigarettes legally, the bill will restrict the range of colours and flavours of e-cigarettes in an attempt to make them less attractive. The government is also banning the sale of disposable vapes.

Sir Chris Whitty, chief medical officer for England, said the aim of the legislation was to ensure no youngsters could become addicted to smoking.

“We do expect that over time to lead to essentially smoking dying out . . . which would be an enormous public health achievement,” he told the BBC.

There are 6mn adult smokers in the UK despite public health campaigns, heavy taxes on tobacco and visual health warnings on cigarette packets.

Public health minister Andrea Leadsom said before the vote that the legislation was “the biggest public health bill” ever put before the Commons.

The UK’s smoking ban was inspired by an initiative in New Zealand, although the country dropped its policy last year to save money for tax cuts.

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