Tough new rules to defeat under-age smoking epidemic

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Shopkeepers who repeatedly sell cigarettes to children will be banned from stocking tobacco under new proposals to be unveiled tomorrow.

Tougher penalties on retailers are part of efforts to reduce the number of youngsters smoking and includes raising the minimum legal age for buying cigarettes. Ministers are about to begin consulting on whether to increase the age from 16 to 18, which would bring it into line with buying alcohol.

Controversially, however, ministers are also considering a compromise option that would see the minimum raised to 17.

A smoker who begins at 15 is three times more likely to die from cancer than one who takes their first drag in their mid-20s. Yet almost one in 10 children aged between 11 and 15 are already smoking regularly. Among 15-year-olds the rate reaches 21 per cent.

The ease with which youngsters can buy cigarettes is revealed in an official survey that found less than a quarter found it difficult: 70 per cent buy from small shops and corner shops.

Currently the maximum fine for retailers found selling tobacco to under-age customers is £3,500, but even this is rarely enforced. There were only 100 prosecutions last year.

Now shopkeepers face the threat of being banned from selling cigarettes at all if they are found to have repeatedly sold to under-age customers.

Trading standards officers, who are responsible for policing the law, are backing the tougher regime and increased minimum age. They will be dismayed, however, if a 17-year-old minimum is agreed.

Ian Willmore, of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) said: "The only logical move is to increase it to 18 in line with alcohol to help everybody to enforce it properly."

Caroline Flint, the health minister, said: "The proposals demonstrate our determination to reduce the number of older children and young teenagers from smoking." The measure would particularly help poorer youngsters who are more likely to start smoking by making it more difficult for them to get hold of cigarettes, she said.

Pressure to bring the UK into line with other EU countries as well as the US, Canada and Australia has grown in recent years. Those who want the minimum age raised to 18 point out that the current minimum of 16 was agreed in 1908. About a quarter of 16- 17-year-olds smoke regularly - something worth an estimated £35m a year to the tobacco industry.

But campaigners believe raising the age will only have a moderate effect on smoking rates which is why the move is not opposed by the tobacco industry.

"Children smoke because adults smoke. In fact sticking an '18 and over' label on packets will make them more desirable than ever to some teenagers," said Mr Willmore.

The scepticism is borne out by international studies that have found that raising the minimum age has had little effect on reducing smoking rates.

The power of tobacco companies to plug their products has been greatly reduced since the introduction of worldwide bans on overt advertising of cigarettes. Since December 2004, all cigarette advertising in the UK has been banned apart from small images of products on vending machines, and tomorrow the House of Lords will vote on measures to restrict smoking in public places.

The measure - first revealed by this newspaper - was described by one health official as a "quick win" at a time when Patricia Hewitt, the Secretary of State for Health, was under fire over the ban on smoking in public places.

In response, tobacco companies have become more inventive in finding ways of raising awareness and marketing their products and also sponsoring "ethical" research. This paper has already revealed how the tobacco giant Philip Morris was backing medical studies into the use of vitamin and mineral supplements to boost fertility levels.

The facts: Young people and cigarettes

1 in 10 girls between 11 and 15 years old smokes

55% can't go a day without one

114,000 smokers die each year as a result of their habit

80% take up the habit as teenagers

1 in 5 needs a cigarette before breakfast

450 children start smoking every day

1 in 6 teenage boys smoke

50% of under-age smokers buy cigarettes themselves

52 number of cigarettes an average teenage smoker gets through in a week