VICTORIA – British Columbia’s health minister says he wants to see the province raise the legal smoking age to 21.
Terry Lake said he’s an ardent anti-smoker and believes the longer people are legally prevented from buying tobacco products, the better the odds are that they won’t pick up the habit.
The legal age in Canada to purchase tobacco products is set by each province and territory.
B.C. and five other provinces have an age limit of 19, while the rest of the provinces and territories have set the smoking limit at 18 years old.
“I’ve seen in my family, my mom die, my dad suffer with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease,” said Lake. “I’ve seen my siblings struggle with addiction to nicotine.”
A scientist at B.C.’s Centre of Addictions Research at the University of Victoria said raising the legal smoking age makes sense, but Lake and others should be aware young smokers are currently finding ways to get tobacco.
“He is right, most people who smoke begin in their younger years, and if we can keep them from starting until they are older then they are not likely to start smoking,” said Marjorie MacDonald.
MacDonald said surveys of high school students across Canada in grades 7 to 12 indicates smoking rates are declining, she said.
She said a recent survey of more than 10,000 secondary school students indicates smoking rates dropped from 7.7 per cent in 2008-2009 to 3.4 per cent in 2014-2015.
During that same period in B.C., rates went from 8.7 per cent to 3.9 per cent, MacDonald said.
British Columbia already has the lowest smoking rate in the country at about 15.3 per cent of the population, according to figures from the B.C. Health Ministry.
Jack Boomer of B.C.’s Clean Air Coalition said Lake’s proposal to raise the legal smoking age has the support of health groups.
“We should embrace the idea and encourage the minister to more than just float it as a trial balloon,” he said from Ottawa.
Opposition New Democrat Leader John Horgan said Thursday he will back Lake’s campaign as it progresses.
“As a reformed smoker, I want to discourage smoking wherever possible,” he said. “I don’t want to give policy pronouncements on the fly, but if we can reduce smoking in B.C., I encourage that.”
Lake, who isn’t running again in this May’s election, said his idea of raising the smoking age does not represent an official change on behalf of B.C.’s government.
“This is a personal thing for me,” he said. “I just wanted to start the conversation so future governments may consider that.”
Lake said other jurisdictions have made the change and found it reduced smoking rates among students.
The Health Ministry said Hawaii and California have boosted their legal smoking age limit to 21.
It did not provide any U.S. data on smoking rates since the legal age was increased.
“Tobacco use is the single most preventable cause of disease and death in British Columbia and one of our primary goals is to stop youth from starting to use tobacco products,” said a ministry statement issued on Thursday.