The minimum age for buying tobacco is to be raised from 16 to 18 in an effort to cut the number of teenage smokers, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.
The measure to place cigarettes on the same legal footing as alcohol will affect hundreds of thousands of smokers: up to 60 per cent of 16-year-olds are estimated to have tried cigarettes.
Patricia Hewitt, the Secretary of State for Health, hopes the concession will appease Labour MPs opposed to smoking who are threatening to tear up a compromise ban on smoking in public places.
As well as the public health benefits, Ms Hewitt believes raising the minimum age will help to restore her credibility, battered in a cabinet row over the ban. "It's a quick win," said one senior aide.
The measure will bring the UK in line with most US states and other EU countries. Spain is the latest to raise the age to 18.
Pressure to bring Britain into line has increased in the light of a recent US study showing that teenage smoking permanently increases the risks of lung cancer. Around a quarter of 16- and 17-year-olds are thought to smoke, making the age group an attractive target for the tobacco industry that earns an estimated £35m a year profit from teenage smokers in Britain.
The minimum legal age for tobacco, first introduced in 1908, has increasingly become an anomaly, however. Retailers face heavy fines if they sell alcohol, solvents, and some computer games to 16- and 17-year-olds.
Trading standards officers have been lobbying for an increase in the minimum age for tobacco on the grounds that it would make enforcing the law easier. Only around 100 prosecutions are launched each year against retailers selling cigarettes to children.
Schools and sixth-form colleges currently unable to prevent older pupils from buying cigarettes will also welcome an increase in the legal minimum.
In addition, a recent survey suggested that 80 per cent of the public would back the move, with particular support coming from 18-24-year-olds.
Ministers signalled that they were preparing to raise the minimum age during a debate on the smoking ban last week. Caroline Flint, a health minister, admitted that the Government is "considering" accepting a backbench amendment to its Health Bill to increase the legal minimum. However, Ms Hewitt is almost certain to adopt the measure early next month, according to officials.
The Labour MP tabling the amendment, Jeff Ennis, sits on the committee that will begin scrutinising the Bill in detail this week. Ministers know they face an uphill struggle pushing through the compromise ban that allows smoking in pubs and clubs that do not serve food.
Campaigners gave the concession a cautious welcome yesterday, insisting, however, that it was no substitute for a full ban on smoking in public places.
"This is clearly an attempt by the Government to distract attention from their ridiculous and unworkable compromise," said Ian Willmore of Action on Smoking and Health. "Of course we will back it but increasing the age will bring marginal benefits compared to placing proper restrictions on smoking in public places."
The tobacco industry has been wary of overtly lobbying against a rise in the age - in public at least. The Tobacco Manufacturers' Association has a neutral position. "It is up to the Government to decide the legal age of persons to whom tobacco products may be sold," a spokesman said last night.Reuse content