On January 31, 2020, the UK became the first and only sovereign country ever to leave the European Union after 47 years of membership. After almost half a century of membership in the EU bloc, the British economy is tightly integrated into that of the EU single market. This means that many laws and regulations active in the UK have their origins in the EU, including tobacco control measures.

Opportunity for the UK to Strengthen Tobacco Control

The UK’s emancipation from EU’s laws brings it the flexibility to tighten its world-leading comprehensive tobacco control measures and it can enjoy better freedom to implement tobacco tax that can increase the price of cheap tobacco products. In addition, it can implement more direct policies, such as the imposition of minimum prices and price caps. Research has shown that higher prices are one of the most effective deterrents to purchase of tobacco products.

Moreover, with about 96% of UK tobacco products coming from the EU in recent years, a no-deal Brexit as well as the implementation of the new Tobacco Control Plan by the end of this year is likely to raise tobacco and cigarette prices significantly.

Brexit offers a chance for the UK to improve its public health; however, it can do the opposite if rules are relaxed. In addition, the benefits of Brexit will not extend to Northern Ireland, which is considered a part of the EU custom unions and is subject to following its rules and regulations, and will continue to have tariff-free imports to and from the EU bloc.

In addition, Northern Ireland will also hold the current warning labels and photos on tobacco packaging while the UK switches to using Australian imagery. Another benefit for tobacco control due to Brexit is the elimination to the import of cheap EU duty-paid tobacco, as well as reduced chances of smuggling because of stricter border controls. The British government has also reduced tobacco allowance that travellers from the EU can bring in with them to 200 cigarettes or 250 grams of tobacco from 800 cigarettes.

When it comes to UK tobacco control, the benefits of Brexit will only be seen if the government is diligent about seizing the opportunity and continuing to mitigate the harms related to tobacco sales. Some health analysts are concerned that the government will place priority more on business interests, post-Brexit, and the negative health impacts related to the use of tobacco will take less precedence, causing the tobacco regulations in the country to suffer.

About 6.9 million people (14.1% of the population) in the UK smoke as of 2019. Reducing tobacco use needs to remain a public health priority if the government hopes to make its dream of a “smoke-free” UK in the next decade a reality.

With the global COVID-19 pandemic occupying most of the attention of the nation, the smoking problem in the UK can easily be overlooked. If this happens, smoking will remain the leading cause of death in the country and will continue to cause more deaths every year than even the pandemic has to date.