Smoking: Labour set to ban under-18s from buying cigarettes

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The Independent Online
The Government hinted yesterday that it is to raise the legal age for tobacco sales from 16 to 18. Colin Brown, Chief Political Correspondent, says the public health minister, Tessa Jowell, is planning a White Paper to help adults kick the habit and curb the rising trend among young girls.

The legal age for buying or supplying cigarettes and tobacco is likely to be raised from 16 to 18 as part of a wider package of measures to curb smoking in the New Year in a White Paper on public health.

Tessa Jowell, the public health minister, made it clear that the Government was moving towards equalising the legal age for tobacco and alcohol at 18 to make it easier for shopkeepers to stop sales to children. There could also be help to wean adults off tobacco by encouraging family doctors to prescribe nicotine substitutes, such as nicotine chewing gum or patches, on the National Health Service.

Ms Jowell told the cross-party Commons Select Committee on Health that she was concerned by the rise in smoking among children, particularly girls. Children of 12 were buying cigarettes, and shopkeepers believed it would be easier to stop sales if the legal age was raised to 18. The White Paper is also expected to propose an identity card for young people as proof of age which could apply to alcohol and tobacco.

There could be new curbs on cigarette machines. "We are also concerned with the ease with which young people are able to buy cigarettes from machines and the way that health warnings may be obscured," she said.

More curbs on smoking in public places could be introduced, but she indicated the Government would avoid legislation, where possible, to maintain public support for its action. "This is not about bossy and intrusive government. It is about doing what we can do to protect children from the harm that tobacco and smoking does," Ms Jowell said.

The minister was given a grilling by Labour and Tory MPs over the Government's decision to seek a permanent exemption for Formula One motor racing from a ban on tobacco sponsorship at the council of health ministers on 4 December. She brushed aside renewed Tory claims that the decision was linked to the donation to Labour Party funds of pounds 1m by Bernie Ecclestone, the Formula One chief, but she faced the toughest questioning so far from Labour MPs.

Ms Jowell responded by giving the clearest signal yet that she will offer a compromise at next week's European council, but she said she was not prepared to negotiate in public. It is understood Britain has a fall- back position to delay a ban for 10 years, but the European Commission is seeking to cut the delay to five or six years.

Meanwhile, Ms Jowell was accused of breaching ministerial guidelines by failing to deliver a memorandum to MPs on the cost of imposing a ban. Tory MPs will challenge her next week when she is called to give more evidence to a Commons committee on European legislation over the alleged breach in the rules.

David Clark, the Chancellor of the Duchy, said on 18 November that the Government required all departments to publish compliance cost assessments for all regulatory proposals likely to have an impact on business, charities and the voluntary sector. Guidelines for ministers say the assessment should be prepared at the same time as an explanatory memorandum on proposed EU legislation is laid before parliament.