The legal smoking age in the UK should be raised to 21 and the government needs to take “urgent action” to safeguard children from tobacco, health charities have said.
This comes as New Zealand recently passed a new anti-smoking law that will ban more and more people from ever being able to buy tobacco. The law aims to stop those aged 14 and under from ever being legally able to buy cigarettes and comes as part of a world-first legislation to outlaw smoking for the next generation.
But how will it work and could or should a similar law be brought into place in the UK? We spoke to experts to find out.
What is New Zealand’s new law on smoking?
The new law says that tobacco cannot ever be sold to anybody born on or after 1 January 2009. This means the minimum age for buying cigarettes will keep going up and up. For example, someone trying to buy a pack of cigarettes 50 years from now would need ID to show they were at least 63 years old.
The new law - which does not affect vaping - also reduces the number of retailers allowed to sell tobacco from about 6,000 to 600. It also decreases the amount of nicotine allowed in tobacco that is smoked. This comes as health authorities in the country have a stated goal of making New Zealand smoke-free by 2025.
New Zealand already restricts cigarette sales to those aged 18 and over, requires tobacco packs to come with graphic health warnings and cigarettes to be sold in standardised packs. The country has also imposed a series of hefty tax hikes on cigarettes in recent years.
Statistics New Zealand reported last month that 8% of New Zealand adults smoked daily, down from 16% 10 years ago. Meanwhile, 8.3% of adults vaped daily, which is up from fewer than 1% six years ago.
Associate minister of health Dr Ayesha Verrall told MPs: “There is no good reason to allow a product to be sold that kills half the people that use it. And I can tell you that we will end this in the future, as we pass this legislation.”
She said the health system would save money from not needing to treat illnesses caused by smoking, such as cancer, heart attacks, strokes, and amputations. She also said the bill would create generational change and leave a legacy of better health for young people.
Smoking rates remain higher among Maori, with about 20% reporting they smoked.
Could or should a similar law be implemented in the UK?
New Zealand’s new anti-smoking law is a world first, but Deborah Arnott, chief executive of health charity Action on Smoking and Health, said raising the age of the sale of cigarettes is “absolutely essential to stopping children starting to smoke” and even raising it to the age of 21 could reduce youth smoking. She said the current six million adult smokers in the UK also need help to quit the habit “if we are to end the deaths from smoking”.
The Khan Review: Making Smoking Obsolete is an independent review commissioned by the UK government and conducted by Javed Khan OBE. The review - published in June - sets out recommendations on how the government’s ambition to reduce the national smoking rate to less than 5% by 2030 can be achieved.
Ms Arnott said the top recommendation wasn’t raising the age of sale, but for the government to spend an additional £125 million a year, to replace the 40% cuts in funding tor help smokers quit. “The time has come for government to act on all Khan’s recommendations,” Ms Arnott added.
Sarah Woolnough, chief executive of charity Asthma + Lung UK, said that for most people with smoking-related lung diseases, tobacco addiction starts in their childhood. The charity’s own research found that 58% of adults who have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) began smoking before the age of 15, so “it’s great to see New Zealand take the lead on protecting the next generation from developing lung conditions caused by this deadly addiction,” she added.
Ms Woolnough said it will be “really interesting to see the impact of these changes in New Zealand”, but there are “some questions as to how a similar policy might be enforced in the UK”. However, she added that one change that “could be implemented straight away” is raising the age of sale from 18 to 21, which would reduce smoking in that age group by 30%.
“In contrast to New Zealand, the Westminster government is lagging way behind and it now looks like it’s about to throw out its own ‘smoke-free’ 2030 target despite recently
committing to this in parliament”, she added. “With younger groups smoking more as a result of the pandemic, and tobacco costing the NHS £2.4bn a year and £1.2bn in social care costs, we need urgent action now to safeguard children from smoking and to increase funding for stop smoking services in the community.”