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Last Updated: Monday, 3 July 2006, 09:29 GMT 10:29 UK
Consultation on smoking age rule
Teenager at shopping counter
A raised limit would be in line with the US and other EU states
The government is launching a consultation on whether or not to raise the legal age for buying tobacco.

Three options have been proposed for England and Wales - raising the limit to 17 or 18 or leaving it as it is. The current law dates back to 1908.

Ministers are also asking whether the sanctions against retailers who sell to under-age children should be tightened.

But campaigners questioned how much impact changing the limit would have on under-age smoking.

The problem is how will it be enforced
Simon Clark

One in 10 under 15s smoke, but prosecution rates for shops which sell cigarettes and other tobacco products to under 16s tend to be low and fines are small, despite the maximum penalty standing at 3,500.

The government argues that raising the legal age would make it easier for retailers to spot under-age smokers and lead to a fall in the number of teenagers who get addicted.

Proposals to toughen up these sanctions include prohibition orders banning repeat offenders from selling tobacco.

Launching the consultation, Public Health Minister Caroline Flint said the younger people started smoking, the more likely they were to be hooked on the habit for life.

As a result, someone who starts smoking at the age of 15 is three times more likely to die of cancer due to smoking than someone who starts in their late 20s.

Cutting inequalities

Ms Flint said: "Access to cigarettes by under 16s is not as difficult as it should be, and this is partly due to retailers selling tobacco to those under the legal age.

About 9% of children aged between 11 and 15 smoke
Nearly 70% of 11 to 15-year-old smokers say they buy their cigarettes from small shops such as newsagents and corner shops
In 2004-5, 117 retailers were successfully prosecuted for selling cigarettes to children under 16. Penalties ranged from a conditional discharge to 1,000 fines

"If a particular shop is known locally as the place for children and teenagers to easily buy tobacco, we want to stop that shop selling it.

"These proposals demonstrate our determination to reduce the number of teenagers from smoking, thereby reducing the number of people with preventable diseases and the incidence of health inequalities."

Ian Willmore, of the anti-smoking charity Action on Smoking and Health, said: "In principle, we support raising the limit to 18 to bring it in line with alcohol, which does not do as much harm as smoking.

"But in reality, I don't think it will affect the number of young smokers, as children smoke because it is seen as an adult habit, so in a way you are giving children even more incentive to start."

And Simon Clark, director of smokers lobby group Forest, said: "We would not oppose raising the age, smoking should be an adult past-time so anything that encourages children not to smoke is good. The problem is how will it be enforced."

The British Medical Association also called for the age limit to be increased to 18 at its annual conference last year.

And a poll conducted in 2004 for the BBC found that four out of five people backed lifting the legal age to 18, which would bring England and Wales in line with the US and other EU states.

Of the 1,010 adults surveyed, 55% said the minimum age should go up to 21.

The consultation will last three months.

The government believes raising the age limit will highlight the dangers of smoking and help retailers spot under-age buyers.

Smoking age 'should rise to 18'
18 Jun 05 |  Health
Children 'conditioned to smoke'
15 Jul 05 |  Merseyside

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