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On table: plan to raise tobacco age bar

New Delhi, June 6: The Union health ministry is examining a proposal to raise the minimum age for buying tobacco to 25 years from the current 18 years to discourage young adults from experimenting with tobacco.

The ministry plans to write to the states asking them to consider raising the tobacco age bar to 25 years, Union health secretary Lov Verma said today on the sidelines of a conference on tobacco control.

“We’re now examining this suggestion,” Verma told The Telegraph. “And we may write to state governments who have the authority to specify age limits for (the sale of) tobacco.”

Public health experts who have been campaigning against tobacco say the proposal has the potential to curb the use of tobacco by young adults but warn that enforcement will be a big challenge.

“This is obviously something worthwhile to consider. Medical studies have suggested that people who haven’t experimented with tobacco up to 21 years of age are unlikely to ever become tobacco users,” said Monika Arora, director of tobacco control at the Public Health Foundation of India, New Delhi, a research and training institution.

“But it would be difficult to implement,” she told this newspaper.

The current national legislation on tobacco control prevents any sale of tobacco products to people below 18 years. “But even this is difficult to enforce,” Arora said.

Past surveys of tobacco use in India had suggested that adolescents and young adults aged between 15 and 24 were the most susceptible.

Research on nicotine has shown that symptoms of addiction — strong urges to smoke, anxiety, irritability, and unsuccessful attempts to quit — may appear in young children within weeks after occasional smoking first begins and well before daily smoking has even started, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids (CTFK) said in a document published earlier this year.

The CTFK, an international non-government organisation, said that half of adult smokers had taken to regular, daily smoking before they turned 18, and 75 per cent had taken to regular daily smoking before they turned 21.

A study, published 15 years ago in the journal Addictive Behaviour, had shown that delaying the age at which young people first experiment with tobacco can reduce their risk of becoming addicted to it.

New York City recently raised the minimum age for buying tobacco to 21 years from the earlier limit of 18 years.

“This is a good idea for India but the question is, will it work?” said Bidyut Sarkar, a doctor at the Public Health Foundation of India who has worked on tobacco cessation research.

“Will vendors really stop selling tobacco products to the young?”

A study on a sample of 360 boys and 260 girls, aged between 13 and 15 years, from three schools in southern Karnataka had found that about 17 per cent of the boys and 3 per cent of the girls smoked cigarettes.

The study, conducted by a team of community medicine specialists at the Kasturba Medical College (Mangalore) five years ago, had also found that among the tobacco users, 73 per cent of the boys and 78 per cent of the girls had not been refused purchase despite their age.