Should the Minimum Age for Cigarettes be 21?

A parliamentary group, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Smoking and Health, has recently called for the legal age for buying cigarettes to be raised from 18 to 21.


It's part of their aim to achieve the "smoke free" generation, which is trying to prevent the newest generation from picking up the habit in the first place.


The cause has also been picked up by the Imperial College London's respiratory specialist Dr Nicholas Hopkinson.


The parliamentary group claims that by just raising the legal age, like in 2007 when the law changed the legal age from 16 to 18, cigarettes can be finally be phased out.


But will this make a difference?


The First Minimum Age Law

The whole idea of changing the legal age upwards is based on the previous success of the law, which made the minimum legal age for buying cigarettes from 16 to 18.


Though at the time there was scepticism to the law it seems to have worked, with the proportion of young smokers falling by 30% in the last couple of years!


And it's not hard to see why either. Almost all smokers (nearly 90% of us) started smoking before the age of 18.


According to this study one of the main ways people change from occasional use to regular smokers is peer pressure and availability.


Dr Nicholas Hopkinson, who advocates this raise in age, says "Smoking is a contagious habit, transmitted within peer groups". If the people around you smoke, you're much more likely to experiment with cigarettes and start the habit, especially as a teenager.


By changing the legal age to 18 the law made it harder to buy cigarettes, and as at 15-16 social groups are of the same age, finding someone to buy cigarettes became harder… but not impossible.


And that shows one of the biggest problems with just raising the age from 16 to 18, as it is fairly common for friendship groups to include age ranges from 16 to 18.


What Could This Ban Do?

The idea of raising the minimum legal age to buy cigarettes then does have merit. According to some studies raising it to 21 could have even more of an impact than the previous law did.


The raise to 21, if it went through, would potentially stop almost all sales of cigarettes for underage smokers. This is because 90% of cigarettes bought for underage smokers are by people between 18 - 20. 


While the age rise to 18 it did stop some younger people from getting cigarettes (as they didn't know anyone old enough to buy them), but it did nothing to address the 18-20 year olds who are buying cigarettes for their younger friends.


Studies show though that this isn't in the case between 21+ and 18 year olds.


It would also stop a lot of those people buying cigarettes for their younger friends as only 10% of them would be above the new age limit.


That would be the point of the law. Although it would be great if people never smoked, the raise in the minimum age is designed to stop teenagers from becoming regular smokers.


Is This Law So Important?

The rise of the minimum age could definitely have a big impact on youth smoking, but before we all start lobbying for this, it's important to remember that there are other factors to the decline in young smokers. Smoking has been shrinking in under 18's for a while now, and there is more to it than the minimum age rise.


Since the law changed in 2007 we have had several big changes:

  • Indoor Smoking ban
  • Graphic images/ no branding on cigarettes
  • No advertising for cigarettes
  • Continuing education about cigarettes
  • Fines for anyone buying cigarettes for minors


Each of these has had a big impact and helped both awareness of the consequences of smoking. To a pack-a-day smoker the graphic images might become normal, but to someone just starting cigarettes, it definitely creates second thoughts.


The other points have also helped, with no smoking inside making cigarettes less appealing and more of a hassle. Children these days are also taught from an early age how terrible cigarettes are for you, so there is no excuse for not knowing.


Of course, one of the biggest reasons that smoking rates have gone down are e-cigarettes. Over 3 million smokers in the UK alone have used e-cigarettes to help quit smoking and that number is continuing to rise. As we said earlier, we are influenced by those around us, especially as teenagers and by taking 3 million smokers out of the equation e-cigarettes have taken some of the peer pressure to smoke away.


Even better for e-cigarettes is that under 18's aren’t taking up e-cigs. So e-cigarettes not only get hardened smokers off the cigarettes but they also stop the pattern of influencing (often unconsciously) those younger than themselves.


Is There Anything Else Which Can Be Done?

If we are looking into what else can be done there are plenty of examples of anti-smoking laws and policies that have helped.


  • Rising the price of cigarettes - Another effective measure to stop the young is making cigarettes even more expensive.  The price of a pack of cigarette in Australia is now more than £18/pack and they have one of the lowest smoking rates in western economies.
  • No smoking near public buildings such as bus stops, taxi ranks or any buildings open to the public – Again, our Aussie counterparts have adopted this approach to stop 2nd hand smoke and banned smoking within a 4m radius of any public entry, with great effect.
  • No smoking near cafe's or anywhere near food preparation or where it is eaten


    None of these measures on their own would stop young people from smoking, but the accumulation of all of these would be extremely effective. They all make smoking more of a trail and less spontaneous. This not only makes it harder to pick the habit up but more financially restrictive to maintain it as well.


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