The battle to keep kids from smoking just keeps getting stranger. A new study shows that making it illegal for kids to smoke can help to reduce youth smoking rates. But oddly, Canada’s convenience stores, which make a considerable chunk of their profits from selling cigarettes, support the study’s recommendation to ban youth smoking—while anti-smoking groups, such as Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada, oppose it.
Right now, it’s illegal for stores to sell cigarettes to kids under the age of 18 or 19 (depending on the province), but that doesn’t mean that it’s illegal for kids to smoke. In fact, while laws against underage drinking are commonplace, laws against underage smoking only exist in Alberta and Nova Scotia.
A study released in October by the University of Florida and DePaul University in Chicago indicates that the rest of the provinces should consider banning youth smoking too. It found that introducing youth possession laws for tobacco is an effective approach to reducing the number of young smokers. Leonard Jason, a psychology professor at DePaul University and co-author of the study, says that banning the sale of tobacco to minors isn’t enough. “There are a variety of ways that, if you’re addicted, you’re going to get tobacco. So you need something more,” he says. Jason argues that if young people can’t smoke openly because they’re afraid of being ticketed by police, there’s less peer pressure for others to pick up the habit.
The Canadian Convenience Stores Association (CCSA) agrees. Despite the fact that tobacco products account for 40 to 60 per cent of a typical convenience store’s annual sales, the association has campaigned for years to push the provinces to pass legislation banning minors from having or smoking tobacco. The reason? Because the current law puts the onus on the tobacco retailer and not the kids—and convenience store owners are getting tired of being the gatekeepers.
Steve Tennant, vice-president of the CCSA, says the provinces should keep the laws making it illegal to sell tobacco to minors, but add new laws so enforcers can fine kids for smoking directly. The additional laws are needed, he says, because many kids are bypassing the stores and buying contraband cigarettes on the black market. “The legislation that we’re proposing is a ban that would complement the existing restrictions on tobacco sales to minors, and add a deterrent to contraband sales,” Tennant says.
But Cynthia Callard, executive director of the anti-smoking advocacy group Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada, says the very fact that the CCSA supports such a ban is evidence that it won’t work. “I can’t overstate how relevant it is that the only people who are pushing for youth possession laws are tobacco companies and tobacco retailers,” she says. “That should give anyone pause.”
Pushing for youth possession laws is an easy way for the CCSA to appear dedicated to helping kids stay smoke-free without hurting their bottom line, says Callard. After all, retailers are already prohibited from selling to minors, so they wouldn’t lose profit under that law. If anyone would get a hit in sales, it would be the contraband cigarette industry, which Tennant says is the CCSA’s largest competitor in tobacco sales. “It’s an attempt to deflect attention away from the measures that will be really effective,” says Callard. “There’s no difference to the health of a young person whether they smoke contraband cigarettes sold in a Baggie rather than cigarettes sold in a fancy package.”
Callard says that there are limited resources available to keep kids from smoking, and those funds would be better spent on education, rather than trying to police the more than 150,000 underage smokers in Canada.
Still, the study’s findings contradict the anti-smoking group’s position, and a recently released Statistics Canada survey shows that the percentage of youth aged 15 to 19 who smoke has levelled off at 15 per cent in recent years, after declining from 28 per cent in 1999. That suggests it may be time for a new strategy. The CCSA will make it difficult for the provinces to ignore the fact that they’ve got one.