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Raising the legal smoking age in Canada is ‘inevitable’: advocate

Several U.S. states have raised their legal smoking age to 21.
Several U.S. states have raised their legal smoking age to 21. Getty Images File

Editor’s note: This post has been updated to include a statement from Health Minister Jane Philpott’s press secretary.

New Jersey is the latest state in America to raise its legal smoking age to 21 — and if studies are correct, it could result in a drastic drop in smoking-related deaths.

The state’s new smoking age, which will go into effect in November, means anyone who offers, sells or gives tobacco products to someone younger than 21, including e-cigarettes, will be fined.

Several other states, including California, Oregon and Maine, are making the same move.

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Bumping up the age was strongly recommended by the U.S. Institute of Medicine (IOM) in a 2015 report. The IOM estimated raising the legal age to 21 could prevent 223,000 premature deaths in the U.S. for those born between 2000 and 2019.

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Rob Cunningham, a senior policy analyst at the Canadian Cancer Society, says raising the age in Canada would have a similar impact.

“It’s just the right thing to do,” he said.

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Cunningham added an increase in the legal smoking age is “inevitable” in Canada, especially with growing momentum south of the border.

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The minimum legal age is set by Health Canada, but provinces can choose to enforce an older age. It’s currently 18, under the Tobacco Act.

Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Quebec, Nunavut, Northwest Territories and Yukon have adopted that age. In Ontario, B.C. and Atlantic Canada, the age is 19.

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Raising the age is something Health Canada is considering, as the current Federal Tobacco Control Strategy expires in 2018.

Health Canada says experts are currently determining “the way forward.”

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“Our government will continue to take action to protect the health of Canadians, and particularly youth when it comes to tobacco use in Canada,” Health Minister Jane Philpott’s press secretary Andrew MacKendrick said in a statement to Global News.

“Earlier this year we launched public consultations on the future of tobacco control in Canada to renew the Federal Tobacco Control Strategy, and to look at reducing Canada’s rate of tobacco use to less than 5% by 2035.”

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A February report from Health Canada considered several ways to modernize the country’s tobacco approach, and raising the minimum legal age is one key component.

Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott has said many options, including a higher legal age, are on the table.

“We’ve put out some bold ideas, things like raising the age of access,” Philpott said, according to News 1130.

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According to the report, more than 37,000 Canadians die from smoking-related illnesses each year — that’s one Canadian every 14 minutes.

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Smoking also costs the health-care system, and economy in general, $17 billion each year.

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An estimated 3.9 million Canadian still smoke, the report adds.

Cunningham says that raising the age would mean fewer teenagers get their hands on cigarettes. While many teenagers obtain cigarettes illegally, a higher age would decrease the chance of them knowing someone who can access cigarettes legally, he explained.

“If the minimum age is 21, you’re going to be much less likely to have that person, a sibling or friend, available to you.”

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Cunningham adds that there are other ways the government could lower the amount of tobacco use in Canada as well, such as plain packaging, increased taxes, fewer flavours and media awareness campaigns.