The Smokefree Generation

The smoke free generation

There is a concept bandied about at the moment called the smokefree generation. An example of how it works goes like this. If you were born after the year 2000, you will no longer be able to purchase tobacco. These people will be known as the tobacco free generation. Proactive? Discriminatory? Innovative?

I think we can agree that increasing the purchase age is a harm minimisation strategy and banning sales to people born after a certain year is an elimination strategy. While data is sparse around banning tobacco sales to people born after a specific year, it would undoubtedly be more effective in reducing smoking than raising the purchase age.

Raising the purchasing age seems to be ‘so hot right now ‘and is perhaps a palatable intervention to many governments. In the USA there are many states that have banned the sale of tobacco to people who are under the age of 21. A March 2015 report by the Institute of Medicine strongly concluded that raising the tobacco sale age to 21 will have a substantial positive impact on public health and save lives. However, in the good ol US of A it is an easier sell because their purchase of alcohol age is also 21. In NZ, it may not be considered rational to allow rangatahi to drink at 18 but not allow them to smoke until the age 21. Especially for those who hold the view that alcohol creates more harm than tobacco.

However the smokefree generation concept is on another level when compared to raising the age of smoking to 21.  Essentially we are talking about a cut-off date that if a child was born after a certain date, it would be unlawful for them to purchase tobacco. Potentially in the future an individual could be 55 and allowed to purchase tobacco while his little brother aged 54 could not.

Perhaps we should take a step back? Is such a concept a mere pipe dream? The real issue is whether there is any political will and public support? Based on our research, legislation banning sales of tobacco to people born after a certain year would be part of our longer term Tupeka Kore strategy when the world would 'theoretically' be more open to the idea! Some research suggests that we're not quite ready for that at this point. It’s worth noting that the most vehement criticism we get from proposed changes to tobacco legislation are from the hard-core section of smokers who enjoy smoking and cannot envisage a life without tobacco. However, this policy doesn’t directly affect them so perhaps they may support this concept. If we limited this policy to a generation who currently do not smoke, it may not cause a negative reaction by tax payers. And if said generation are not yet of the voting age, then most risk averse governments could take a leap of faith without too much voter backlash.

Unfortunately there is no precedence for such a proposal and of course it does raise some human rights issues. Could we be world leaders and have the vision to implement such a policy? Is this an example of ‘think outside of the box’, innovation and creative response to a huge problem? Or just another pie in the sky initiative destined for the too hard basket.

Below is some key points from the research:

  • Although no systematic research on the effectiveness of raising the legal age to purchase cigarettes has been done, studies of alcohol suggest that age restrictions can be effective (Babor, 2010; Thomas et al., 2008)
  • A large body of research shows that very few people initiate smoking or become habitual smokers after their teen years.  Thus, raising the legal purchase may be a way to further restrict youth access to cigarettes before smoking becomes a life long habit (Lantz et al., 2000)
  • Raising the purchase age may also be a viable option in situations where tax increases are modest or not politically viable (Sajjad Ahmad & Billimek, 2007)
  • Enforcement is key to the effectiveness of any policy measure that penalises or restricts sales to minors (Thomas et al., 2008). 
  • Research also suggests that policy measures that restrict sales to minors may be more effective in girls and younger children (Thomas et al., 2008).
  • While studies suggest that the enforcement of youth access laws can lead to reductions in illegal sales to minors (J. L. Forster et al., 1998), the evidence that this actually translates into reduced tobacco consumption is limited (Thomas et al., 2008)
  • The literature also suggests that youth obtain tobacco products from a wide variety of sources, including social sources (J. Forster et al., 2003; Wong et al., 2007).  Hence, interventions to reduce tobacco supply to minors need to address this issue (Harrison, Fulkerson, & Park, 2000; Lantz et al., 2000).