Ministers are considering a new tax on vapes in a significant expansion of moves to create a “smoke-free generation” that also includes the gradual introduction of a total ban on smoking for children.
Documents published alongside Rishi Sunak’s first king’s speech revealed that an eight-week consultation on smoking and vaping would “explore a new duty” on vapes as about 40 other countries have already introduced.
Downing Street said there was an “important balance” to be struck in making sure that cigarettes were taxed at a higher level than vapes, which officials regard as a useful tool to cut smoking even though they carry their own health risks.
The new tobacco and vapes bill, which ministers plan to introduce next month, will introduce tighter restrictions on vaping to protect children and phase out the sale of cigarettes, so they can never be sold to children currently aged 14 or younger.
Smoking costs the UK £17bn a year, according to the government, including £14bn through lost productivity and £3bn on the NHS and care system, dwarfing the £10bn income from taxes on tobacco products.
The move to tax vapes was one of the few surprise measures in a speech that appeared largely designed to create dividing lines with Labour as Sunak battles to lift the Conservatives’ dire poll ratings before the next election.
As MPs began what is almost certainly the final session of parliament before voters go to the polls, the government set out 21 bills, which the prime minister said showed the Tories had “turned the corner” after a turbulent few years to put the country on a better path.
The king’s speech contained challenges for Keir Starmer in the form of legislation to mandate annual oil and gas licensing in the North Sea, which Labour has said it would block, as well as a series of tough new crime and justice measures.
However, the Labour leader told MPs the plans, which included little legislation to improve Britain’s struggling public services, were “more of the same” from a government “desperately trying to save their own skin”.
It was also the first state opening of parliament delivered as monarch by King Charles, who paid tribute to his mother’s “legacy of service and devotion”, with his wife, Camilla, at his side.
Bills covering sentencing laws, police powers and the treatment of victims of crime included previously announced proposals for killers convicted of the most horrific murders to never be released from jail while rapists and other serious sexual offenders would not be let out early.
Other measures included handing police greater powers to enter a property without a warrant to seize stolen goods, such as phones. Senior Tories hope a focus on issues seen as traditionally Tory will help Sunak overturn Labour’s consistently double-digit poll lead.
However, plans to publish a draft criminal justice bill on Wednesday have been delayed because of an internal row over Suella Braverman’s crackdown on rough sleepers, sources said.
Some ministers are understood to be uncomfortable with the proposal by the home secretary, who caused consternation by saying that some people saw sleeping on the streets as a “lifestyle choice”, to fine charities who give tents to the homeless.
The government will, however, press ahead this week with seven bills carried over from the previous session, as well the media bill and Sunak’s heavily trailed plans for an annual system for awarding oil and gas licences, with the government saying it would protect jobs and bolster energy security.
Experts, including climate scientists and poverty campaigners, have warned against plans to keep drilling. The energy secretary, Claire Coutinho, has admitted that household energy bills may not come down as a result of the proposal.
Former prime minister Theresa May offered a mild rebuke to Sunak, reminding him that it was her government that introduced the target of net zero by 2050.
She called on the prime minister to “press the accelerator” on the transition to zero emissions and “not roll backwards”.
The government will also bring forward two long-promised housing reform packages this week, one to give renters extra rights and one to protect leaseholders. Both, however, have been watered down in significant ways.
The boycotts bill, designed to stop councils enacting boycott and divestment campaigns against Israel and another attempt at a dividing line with Labour, is also set for a return despite causing anger among some Tories, who believe it gives special treatment to the Israeli government.
While public services including health and education were mentioned in the speech, there was no new legislation to either reform the NHS – with officials saying the workforce plan did not require a new law – or to deliver on promises last year of a big piece of legislation to modernise the Mental Health Act.
There was no bill to bring in Sunak’s plans to replace A-levels and T-levels with a new single “advanced British standard” qualification either, with officials saying they were in discussions with the sector.
A law to change the structure and operation of the railways in Britain by setting up a new body, Great British Railways, to control and manage all aspects of the railways, was only in “draft” form, meaning it is unlikely to happen before the next election.
There was a bill to pave the way for driverless cars, buses, grocery deliveries and farm machinery on British roads by the end of the decade. However, there would be immunity from prosecution when the technology was in control. Pedicabs will be banned from the streets of London.
The speech also set out plans for a new system of governance for football, a ban on the export of live animals from the UK for slaughter abroad and a new law aimed at protecting consumers from being ripped off online.
However, the proposals that were left out of the speech attracted as much attention. These included a ban on conversion practices for LGBTQ+ people, reforms of private pensions, regulation of artificial intelligence and nutrient neutrality rules for housing developments.