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In a landmark move, Cabinet has approved a proposal for legislation to increase the minimum age for the sale of tobacco products to 21. This initiative, announced by Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly and Minister for Public Health, Wellbeing and the National Drugs Strategy Colm Burke, positions Ireland as the first country in the European Union to implement such a measure.

Ireland has a history of leading the charge in tobacco control, dating back to the indoor smoking ban introduced in 2004. The new proposal is aimed at accelerating the reduction of Ireland’s adult smoking rate to below 5%, in line with government policy. Currently, 18% of the population over the age of 15 are smokers.

Preliminary legal advice indicates that Ireland cannot pursue a ‘smokefree generation’ policy due to the EU’s Single Market rules and the Tobacco Products Directive. However, raising the minimum age for tobacco sales is seen as a significant step towards reducing smoking rates.

Smoking and exposure to second-hand smoke are responsible for approximately 4,500 deaths annually in Ireland and contribute to numerous preventable illnesses, including various cancers, cardiovascular diseases, and respiratory conditions. Evidence suggests that individuals between the ages of 18 and 21 are at a high risk of starting smoking. By increasing the minimum purchasing age, the government aims to reduce the availability of tobacco to young people, thus lowering the number of new smokers.

Minister Donnelly emphasised the importance of this measure, stating:

“This is a tough new measure, but the health impacts of tobacco smoking are immense and require tough responses. I am determined to progress legislation that will protect children and young people from this lethal product and ultimately save lives.”

Minister Burke highlighted the broader health impacts, noting:

“Tobacco smoking remains the biggest risk factor driving disability and death combined in our country. Raising the minimum age of sale of tobacco is a significant action that will help create a tobacco-free generation and reduce the health harms associated with this behaviour.”

Chief Medical Officer Professor Breda Smyth supported the move, explaining:

“Smoking causes 13% of all cancers and contributes to many preventable illnesses. Our smoking rates are still unacceptably high, so I am delighted that we are progressing a strong population protection measure that will help bring us closer to the goal of a tobacco-free Ireland.”

Minister Ossian Smyth praised the proposal, adding:

“This is a welcome move by this government to again be a leader in Europe in implementing changes that will ensure fewer young people access tobacco products and become addicted to them.”

The new legislation will include a provision that exempts those currently aged 18 to 20 from the new age restriction. However, it will not impact the minimum legal age for the sale of nicotine inhaling products or vapes, which remains at 18 following a ban on sales to minors enacted last December.

As Ireland aims to lead by example in tobacco control, this bold step is expected to significantly impact public health and move the country closer to its goal of becoming tobacco-free.