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Juvenile Smoking

The Hon Fred Nile and the Hon David Oldfield both spoke intelligently in the Parliament this week on a new Bill to limit access of children and young people to cigarettes.

The Public Health Amendment (Juvenile Smoking) Bill 2002 has three main points: to allow police officers to confiscate tobacco or non-tobacco smoking products possessed by under-18-year-olds while in a public place; to create an offence for those over 18 years of age who send under-18-year-olds to purchase tobacco or non-tobacco smoking products; and to create an offence for those over 18 years of age who purchase tobacco or non-tobacco smoking products on behalf of a person who is under 18 years of age. It should be specifically noted that the bill states that “a person who contravenes subsection (1) is not guilty of an offence but may be given a caution or warning under the Young Offenders Act 1997“.

This bill is a reflection of that part of the Summary Offences Act that deals with the possession of liquor by minors.

Under the current situation the law with respect to minors and the use of tobacco is quite different to that of minors and the consumption of alcohol. In general terms, it is necessary to be 18 years of age to be able to purchase and legally consume alcohol, yet although for the most part tobacco use is far more dangerous to one’s health than alcohol consumption, tobacco use by under 18-year-olds is fairly unimpeded. It is true that it is illegal to sell tobacco products to someone under the age of 18. While this is appropriate, unfortunately it is legal for a person under 18 years of age to consume tobacco products. The current provisions also fall down in that those over 18 are not precluded from purchasing tobacco products on behalf of minors. However, the laws regarding alcohol consumption by minors are different in that they address both of these situations.

Considering the danger posed by tobacco products, it makes perfect sense to bring the way the law deals with minors and tobacco products in line with laws relating to minors and alcohol consumption. That is what this bill does.

Society has legislated age restrictions on many things, but not on consuming tobacco products. People must be 18 to vote, 17 to drive a car, 16 or 18, depending on their orientation, to consent to sex. People must be 18 years of age to own a firearm, and 17 years of age to join the defence forces. All of these age restrictions have been put in place with the intention of providing a position whereby people reach an accepted level of physical and mental maturity that will likely enable them to understand the ramifications of what they are doing and hence act responsibly.

We readily accept that an age must be reached before the law allows access to alcohol. It is necessary to consider alcohol and tobacco together.

Many believe it is reasonable to drink in moderation, and we accept that under some circumstances alcohol is actually beneficial to people’s health. Yet we are even more clear in saying that every cigarette is doing you damage. There is no doubt that drink can be a good thing, just as there is absolutely no doubt that there is no such thing as a good cigarette. I say again: Every cigarette is doing you damage. Yet while people have to be 18 to drink alcohol, they can legally smoke at any age.

I fully recognise, acknowledge and respect an individual’s choice to smoke-that is, when that individual is over 18 years of age, and hence likely better placed to determine the right or wrong and positive or negative of what they are doing to themselves. But society has not put a starting age on smoking.

Of all the things we wish to protect children from, surely drugs is one of the most obvious. Make no mistake, tobacco is a seriously addictive and damaging drug without equal in our community. We all understand smoking to be dangerous, and though some people are apparently willing to subject themselves to the possibility of serious illness, the facts speak for themselves. Every year smoking kills around 19,000 Australians, including several thousand from New South Wales.

Smoking is responsible for more than 80 per cent of all drug-related deaths. Smoking kills more people than road accidents, homicides, HIV, illicit drugs, alcohol and diabetes combined. It is estimated that smoking causes 21 per cent of all cancer deaths, and yet tobacco use is the biggest single, preventable cause of both cancer and heart disease. In 1998 more than 140,000 Australians were hospitalised due to illnesses caused by smoking. More than 940,000 hospital patient days are swallowed up each year by tobacco-related illness. It is estimated that New South Wales business loses $2 million each working day to tobacco-related sickness, absenteeism and medical retirement.

It should be abundantly clear to everyone that tobacco use costs the State of New South Wales billions of dollars each year. Indeed, it is statistically proven that most regular smokers were introduced to smoking while juveniles. The vast majority of adult smokers got hooked on cigarettes very early in life, and yet we legally allow minors to smoke. While we reasonably respect the rights of adults who choose to smoke, we must also do everything we possibly can to discourage people from taking up smoking in the first place. The most successful way to reduce the number of smokers will be to stop young people from taking up the habit.


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