‘I started smoking at 12 — my fellow Tories are wrong to oppose new ban’

A Government minister on Tuesday described her regret at having started smoking aged 12 as she blasted Conservative libertarians who plan to vote against legislation aimed at creating a “smoke-free generation”.

Minister for Victims and Safeguarding Laura Farris, 45, said she was glad that her two young children would never be able to buy tobacco legally under the legislation, which comes up for a free vote at its first hurdle in the Commons later on Tuesday.

Tory critics including former prime ministers Boris Johnson and Liz Truss have slammed Rishi Sunak’s Tobacco and Vapes Bill, which would outlaw the sale of tobacco products across the UK to anyone born on or after January 1, 2009.

If enacted it will become the first such legislation in the world, after New Zealand’s new government withdrew a similar plan.Ms Truss is among Conservative MPs who plan to take advantage of the free vote to register their opposition, and the scale of their vote will reveal resistance to Mr Sunak more widely amid calls from some on the Tory Right for another change of leader to rescue the party’s standing ahead of an election this year.

Ms Truss, who has been busy promoting a new book about her short-lived time in 10 Downing Street, staged a rare Commons appearance in the smoking debate to argue it was “hugely problematic” to try to “protect adults from themselves”.

To laughter from the Opposition benches, she said the “health police” were determined to ban not just tobacco but also sugar and alcohol.

Calling the Bill “unconservative”, the former PM said: “If people want to vote for finger-wagging, nannying, control freaks, there are plenty of them to choose from on the benches opposite... If they want to have freedom, that is why they vote Conservative.”

The Labour party backs the ban, however, ensuring it is likely to go through eventually.

Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting told MPs: “A stopped clock is right twice a day, and I find myself agreeing with the former prime minister. This is absolutely an unconservative Bill, it is a Labour Bill, and we are delighted to see the Government bring it forward.”

Ms Farris underlined that smoking is still responsible for one in four of all deaths and costs the NHS £17 billion a year.

She said that she was “ashamed” to admit that she started smoking at the age of 12 after she was introduced to cigarettes by a friend’s older sibling, and then struggled to quit throughout her 20s.

“It's one of my biggest regrets actually,” the MP for Newbury in Berkshire told LBC.

“And I've got two young kids now and the fact that they will never be able to walk into a shop and buy a packet of cigarettes is something I welcome.”

Ms Farris added: “And by the way, I have never met a single smoker who's glad they did it, wishes that their children do it, can identify a single health benefit or any other life benefit.

“It gets you hooked. It's a horrible habit. And even when you're doing it, you know that you're causing yourself irreparable harm, and it's incredibly difficult to get off.

“And actually, I think this is a very, very sensible policy and I'm not particularly interested in arguments about freedom on this one.”

But Conservative MP Sir Simon Clarke, an ally of Ms Truss and Mr Johnson, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the legislation risked “making smoking cooler” and “creating a black market”.

Sir Simon said education and the tax system were better tools to discourage smoking, and brushed off opinion polls showing that two-thirds of Britons back a phased smoking ban – a figure that extends to 70% among those who voted Conservative in 2019.

But Professor Sir Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, said on Today that it would be an “enormous public health achievement” if smoking eventually dies out.

As well as raising the smoking age every year, the Bill would also regulate the display, contents, flavours and packaging of vapes to discourage their appeal to children.

Sir Chris said: “It is utterly unacceptable to market it [vaping] to children. Yet that is what has happened.”