Tasmania could become the first state in Australia to raise smoking age to 21

Anti-smoking campaigners hope Tasmania could this year set off a chain of events that would see the legal smoking age increased to 21 across the country.

Key points:

  • A bill that would ban the sale of cigarettes in Tasmania to people aged under 21 will be re-introduced to Parliament this year
  • Tobacco 21 legislation was enacted across the United States in December 2019
  • Tasmania’s Menzies Research Institute said five out of eight studies on T21 in the US showed it worked
  • It’s been just over a year since Tobacco 21 (T21) laws were passed across the United States.


It all began in 2005 in Needham, a small town in Boston, Massachusetts. “There was a 47 per cent reduction in high school use of tobacco,” Boston paediatrician, Lester Hartman, said.

The results both stunned and inspired health authorities, who took the data to legislators around the country. The dominoes eventually fell. New York became the first major city to enact T21 in 2013, followed by states like Hawaii and California. In December 2019, the legal smoking age was raised across the country.

This year, anti-tobacco campaigners hope Tasmania will stand as Australia’s first T21 “domino”.

Independent MLC Ivan Dean will bring on the second reading of the Public Health Amendment (Prevention of Sale of Smoking Products to Underage Persons) Bill 2018 in March.

While the Liberal Government in Tasmania once proposed lifting the smoking age, more recently it has rejected the idea, concerned about the potential for a black market in cigarettes.

But the US Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation said that didn’t happen in Needham.

“One would think the kids there would just get on their bicycles and go to a nearby town and buy their smokes but that’s not what happened,” said regional director Shannon Quinby.

“The opposite happened. Over a period of two or three years, smoking rates went down dramatically.”

Ms Quinby said Tasmania, being an island, was even better positioned for T21 than landlocked Needham. But she said being the first was a double-edged sword.

“It means you can pave the way and you get a lot of tremendous publicity for being bold and courageous … but you will also get a lot of criticism.”

What defines an ‘adult’?

One key difference between Australia and the US when considering T21 is that Americans had long been banned from buying alcohol before the age of 21.

Dr Hartman said many young Americans argued that if they were old enough to join the military, they should be allowed to buy cigarettes.

“There needs to be a change in understanding of the definition of what an adult is,” he said.

“The seed of judgment at the frontal lobe doesn’t fully develop until 25.”

Dr Hartman lobbied more than 170 boards of health to tip his home state of Massachusetts in favour of T21.

While he hoped Tasmania would seriously consider the move, he agreed the rise of technology and vaping had made the black market arguments more compelling.

“We did not see the black market with tobacco cigarettes in Needham … but there was not the internet access that there is now, there was not the social media.”

The Menzies Research Institute in Tasmania examined eight scientific studies on T21 in the US. Five showed it reduced smoking rates.

“It’s quite varied because of the differences in study design,” said senior research fellow Seana Gall.

“The studies that found that it had a significant effect on smoking prevalence were those that were the most robust.”

The Institute found people aged 21 and over were less likely to supply cigarettes to minors than those aged 18 to 20.

“It’s creating a bigger gap between those people who are sort of experimenting with smoking and those people who can actually legally purchase the cigarettes,” said Dr Gall.

The Australian Lawyers Alliance wasn’t buying it.

“We think the Menzies centre work was naive,” said criminal justice spokesman Greg Barns.

“You don’t cut supply chains, you simply make them different types of supply chains.

“All you’re going to do is get people who are 21, 22, or with fake ID, going into shops and buying cigarettes and distributing them.”

Tasmania is being mooted as the best first state for T21, partly because of its high smoking rates but also because of its strict vendors.

“We have 98 per cent compliance from retailers in Tasmania,” said Smoke Free Tasmania’s Kathryn Barnsley.

“They simply don’t sell cigarettes to young people already.”

She said studies showed most young people bought cigarettes from supermarkets, sparing Tasmania’s small businesses any costly consequences from T21.

But the Small Business Council said it wasn’t the way forward.

“I know for a fact that everybody under the age of 18 gets [tobacco] from family and friends and that is not going to change,” said CEO Robert Mallett.

He said legalising vaping was the way to go.

“Australia is one of the few places in the world not to have regulated and legalised its use which is a crying shame because harm reduction experts throughout the world recognise that vaping a nicotine liquid is significantly less harmful than burning tobacco paper and smoking it through a filter.”

By Alison Costelloe for ABC News, 11 January 2021