ASH Media Briefing on the raising of the minimum age for the sale of tobacco on 1 October 2007.

Tuesday 25 September 2007

This briefing sets out the facts relating to the change in the law which are due to come into effect next week.

Legal Background

From Monday 1 October it will be illegal to sell any tobacco product to any person under the age of 18 throughout Great Britain.  In January, the Government announced that the minimum age for the purchase of tobacco would be raised from 16 to 18 in England and Wales and the Scottish Parliament subsequently made a similar announcement to raise the minimum age to 18 in Scotland. [1].

The legal age for the purchase of tobacco has been 16 since 1908.  The law prohibiting the sale of tobacco to minors is set out in the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 (1937 in Scotland) as amended by the Children and Young Persons (Protection from Tobacco) Act 1991.

The change in the law will bring tobacco sales in line with alcohol, simplifying the procedure for checking the age of purchasers of alcohol or tobacco.  All tobacco retailers will be required to display a notice stating that it is illegal to sell tobacco to anyone under the age of 18.  Failure to comply with the law could result in a fine of up to £2500.

The Government has issued notices to 70,000 priority retailers and to a further 140,000 other retailers.  The awareness raising campaign also includes billboard posters informing the public of the new law.

Teenage Smoking Rates

Currently 9% of 11-15 year olds in England and Wales are regular smokers but the proportion who smoke rises steeply by age, so that by the age of 15 one fifth are regular smokers: (16% of boys and 25% of girls).  Rates of smoking among young girls have changed little over the past two decades, whilst there has been a significant fall amongst boys.  [2]

Among 16-19 year olds, 23% of young men and 26% of women are smokers.  [3]  Smoking rates among young adults have declined steadily from 33% in the mid 1980s to 24% in 2005.

Health Impact of smoking at a young age

Most smokers start in adolescence and the younger a person starts, the greater the risk of serious diseases, later in life, particularly lung cancer.  Someone who starts smoking at 15 is three times as likely to die from cancer due to smoking than someone who starts smoking in their mid-20s. Additionally the younger a person starts to smoke, the less likely they are to give up.  More immediate health effects include a reduction in lung function and reduced fitness.

Access to tobacco

Despite the current law, many children and young people report being able to buy tobacco.  The latest survey revealed that only 23% of those under 16 who tried to buy tobacco found it difficult to do so. [2]  Nearly 70% of 11-15 year old smokers say that they buy their cigarettes from small shops such as newsagents.

Children also have easy access to vending machines, with 17% of under-age smokers reporting that they usually buy cigarettes from vending machines.

Expected impact of the change in the law  and enforcement

The Government estimates that raising the purchase age to 18 will result in a fall in cigarette consumption of around 14% among 11-16 year olds.  Longer term,  the impact of this measure will be to cut smoking rates among adults by about 0.5%.  The cost savings to the NHS through reduced smoking are estimated to be up to £6 million. [4]

The success of the law will depend largely on how well it is enforced.  Trading Standards Officers have the responsibility of checking retailers’ compliance with the law.   During 2005 only 56 retailers in England and Wales were fined for selling cigarettes to children out of a total of 89 who had proceedings brought against them. [5]

Notes and links:

[1]  The Department of Health’s announcement followed a public consultation during 2006.

The consultation document can be viewed here.

ASH’s response to the above consultation can be downloaded as pdf here.

[2]    Smoking, drinking and drug use among young people in England in 2006.  The Information Centre, 2007.

[3] General Household Survey, 2006.

[4]  Partial regulatory impact assessment of raising the minimum age for the sale of tobacco products.  Annex A of the Consultation on raising the minimum age for the purchase of tobacco.

[5] Office for Criminal Justice Reform, 2007.