The Tasmanian government’s proposal to raise the minimum legal smoking age from 18 to either 21 or 25 has received cautious approval from public health experts.
The move, aimed at reducing the state’s high smoking rates, is the centrepiece of the government’s Healthy Tasmania discussion paper, released by the state’s health minister, Michael Ferguson, on Sunday.
If the idea receives support, the government could draft legislation to amend the Public Health Act.
It would be a first for Australia but several jurisdictions in the US have already raised the minimum smoking age. The city of Needham in Massachusetts made it 21 in 2005 and New York City did the same in 2013. From January 1, Hawaii will raise it to 21 as well.
“International evidence supports raising the minimum legal smoking age as a means of targeting the most at-risk age category for smoking uptake,” Ferguson said in a statement accompanying the report.
“Studies show that most smokers take up the habit before the age of 25. There would likely be significant health benefits for the community and savings to the health system over time if the rate of people taking up smoking was reduced.”
Tasmania has the second-highest rate of smoking in Australia, behind the Northern Territory. According to the National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2013, 19.3% of Tasmanian adults smoked daily, compared with a national rate of 13.3%. The highest rate was among young adults – only 3.4% of those between 12 and 17 said they smoked daily, compared with 13.4% of those between 18 and 24.
Mike Daube, a professor of health policy at Curtin University, said the proposal was encouraging because it showed the public health risk posed by smoking was being taken seriously.
“Tasmania may well need some specific measures because smoking rates there are significantly higher than most of the country,” Daube said.
“We know that the vast majority of smokers start while they are adolescents, so any measure that can prevent that from happening will help reduce the overall smoking rate.”
Daube said the challenge would be to ensure the legislation was stringently enforced and sat within a broader public information campaign.
The proposed amendment is inspired by legislation debated in the state’s upper house in 2014 by the independent MP Ivan Dean, who proposed a “tobacco-free generation”. That legislation, now before a parliamentary committee, would make it illegal to sell cigarettes or other tobacco products to anyone born in 2000 or beyond. The tobacco ban would follow post-millennials into adulthood – they would never be able to buy cigarettes in Tasmania.
Daube said that while both ideas had merit, Ferguson’s proposal was “simpler”.
“If Ivan Dean’s proposal has succeeded in making the government look at this, then that’s good too,” he said.
In a parliamentary committee hearing in September, Dean said his proposal got rid of the “18-year-old stupidity”, which he suggested was behind the jump in the number of people developing a daily smoking habit once they were able to buy cigarettes.
According to a report by the US Institute of Medicine, quoted in the Tasmanian discussion paper, 90% of daily smokers reported having their first cigarette by the age of 19, and almost all of them took up smoking before the age of 25.
The chief executive of the Cancer Council in Tasmania, Penny Egan, told Guardian Australia many young people began smoking before they turned 18, but the suggestion was that if the minimum legal age was raised, teenagers would be less likely to share a peer group with people who were able to buy them cigarettes.
Under current smoking patterns, “by the time they are 18, they are well and truly addicted,” she said.
“We are very supportive of any initiative that’s going to reduce smoking rates or prevent people from taking up the habit,” Egan said.
The chair of the Cancer Council Australia’s tobacco issues committee, Kylie Lindorff, was more circumspect. She pointed to the track record of public information campaigns and measures such as plain packaging laws in reducing smoking rates.
“We will watch developments in Tasmania with interest and keep an open mind while continuing to push for more of what we already know is effective in further driving down smoking rates,” Lindorff said.
The five-year Healthy Tasmania plan focuses on initiatives to reduce the state’s two most pressing public health concerns, obesity and smoking, and proposes a range of initiatives besides raising the smoking age, such as partnerships between local governments and health food producers to provide information about nutrition and programs to reduce smoking rates during pregnancy.