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Prime minister Rishi Sunak is considering imposing a complete ban on smoking for the next generation in what would amount to some of the strictest measures to tackle the health problem anywhere in the world.

The UK government is exploring whether it could impose a regime similar to the one instigated in New Zealand last year where the smoking age is being increased incrementally until cigarettes and tobacco cannot be sold to anyone born on or after 1 January 2009, according to people briefed on its thinking.

The proposals, first reported by the Guardian, come amid a wider drive by the prime minister to present a fresh face for the Conservative party, which is facing declining approval ratings in national polls.

Earlier this week, Sunak met fierce criticism from environmental groups and several MPs from across the political spectrum when he announced he would soften key environmental targets set by his government.

These included delaying a ban on the sale of new diesel and petrol cars from 2030 to 2035, and relaxing the phaseout of new gas boilers.

The Financial Times also reported that Sunak was set to propose a radical reshaping of the A-level system to introduce a “British baccalaureate”.

The idea of banning the sale of cigarettes to younger generations is likely to face strong pushback from the more libertarian wing of the Conservative party, who resent overt government intervention in public activities.

Earlier this year, shadow health minister Wes Streeting said Labour would look at an outright ban on the sale of cigarettes, following the New Zealand model, and he wanted to launch a consultation to test public appetite.

Under the New Zealand law, which came into effect this year, there is now an annually rising smoking age and those aged under 14 will never be able to legally buy cigarettes in the country.

A government spokesperson said: “Smoking is a deadly habit — it kills tens of thousands of people each year and places a huge burden on the NHS and the economy.”

They added: “We want to encourage more people to quit and meet our ambition to be smoke-free by 2030, which is why we have already taken steps to reduce smoking rates.”

Deborah Arnott, chief executive of Action on Smoking and Health, said: “If the government is serious about making England smoke-free by 2030, it needs to reduce youth uptake as well as help adult smokers quit.

“ASH strongly supports raising the age of sale. It’s worked well in the US and is popular with the public,” she added.

But Simon Clark, director of the smokers’ group Forest, said if Sunak decided to introduce these measures “it will be a Conservative government in name only”, taking the “nanny state to another level”.

“Prohibiting the sale of cigarettes to future generations of adults won’t stop people smoking,” he said, “it will simply drive the sale of cigarettes underground and into the hands of criminal gangs.”

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