Downing Street did not deny reports that the Prime Minister could accept a recommendation that would effectively ban cigarettes for the next generation.
Rishi Sunak is considering introducing some of the toughest anti-smoking measures in the world by steadily raising the legal smoking age, according to the Guardian, which cited Whitehall sources.
Last year, a major review led by Dr Javed Khan backed England following in the footsteps of New Zealand, which plans to impose a gradually increasing smoking age to prevent tobacco being sold to those born on or after January 1, 2009.
Dr Khan recommended “raising the selling age from 18, by one year, every year until nobody can buy a tobacco product in this country”.
If implemented by 2026, it would mean that anyone aged 15 and under would never be able to buy a cigarette.
Health Secretary Neil O'Brien appeared to rule out adopting this approach in April when he said the government's policy to achieve a smoke-free nation by the 2030 target would focus on “helping people to quit” rather than in the application of prohibitions.
No 10, however, refused to throw cold water on Friday's report that a tougher approach could be taken, with Mr Sunak understood to be considering different policy advice on how to meet England's tobacco target.
In his government-commissioned report published in June 2022, Dr Khan said that without urgent action, England would miss the 2030 target by at least seven years, with the poorest areas not reaching it until 2044.
It put the annual cost of smoking to society at around £17bn – £2.4bn to the NHS alone.
A UK Government spokesman said: “Smoking is a deadly habit, killing tens of thousands of people every year and placing a huge burden on the NHS and the economy.
“We want to encourage more people to quit and meet our ambition to be smoke-free by 2030, so we are already taking action to reduce smoking rates.
“This includes providing free vaping kits to one million smokers in England through the world's first ‘swap to stop' scheme, launching a voucher scheme to encourage pregnant women to quit and advising on mandatory cigarette packs.”
The legal age for buying cigarettes and other tobacco products in England and Wales is 18, having been raised from 16 in 2007 by the previous Labor government.
Campaigners suggested Friday's report showed a new direction from the Conservative Government.
It comes after Mr Sunak announced this week that he was scaling back commitments to green policies, which he said marked the start of changes to “a series of long-term decisions” to set a new direction for the UK.
Deborah Arnott, chief executive of Action on Smoking & Health (Ash), said raising the legal smoking age had had results in other countries.
“Smoking is highly addictive and only one in three smokers quit before they die, taking an average of 30 tries before succeeding,” he said.
“If the government is serious about making England smoke-free by 2030, it needs to reduce uptake by young people as well as helping adults to quit.
“Ash strongly supports raising the selling age, has worked well in the US and is popular with the public.”
But the smoker's rights group Freedom Organization for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco (Forest) said the move was anti-conservative and would not stop people from smoking.
Director Simon Clarke said a ban would “simply drive the sale of cigarettes underground and into the hands of criminal gangs”.
He added: “Treating adults like children, denying them the right to buy cigarettes legally, would take the nannies situation to another level.”
“Smoking rates have been falling for decades. The idea that any government would prioritize tackling smoking at a time when the country is facing far more significant challenges at home and abroad is frankly obscene.
“If it is true that the Prime Minister wants to introduce some of the toughest anti-smoking measures in the world, depriving millions of adults of their freedom of choice, it will only be a Conservative Government.”
The development comes after reports earlier this month that ministers would ban single-use vapes to help protect children.
Ministers are said to be drawing up plans to ban disposable vapers, which are thought to target under-18s with their sweet flavors and brightly colored pouches.
It comes after some leading doctors called for action to protect children's health from vaping.