The idea, first introduced in New Zealand and now moving forward in the United Kingdom, is included in a consultation paper released earlier this week by the Island's Health Department and its chief public health office.

The five-year wellness plan, titled Live Well P.E.I., calls for a "tobacco-free generation" policy, suggesting as an example that no one born after Jan. 1, 2009, would ever be able to legally purchase cigarettes.

"The measures proposed by P.E.I. are groundbreaking," said Rob Cunningham, senior policy analyst with the Canadian Cancer Society. "P.E.I. would be the first province to do this, and we support the P.E.I. plan."

The P.E.I. document says the generational approach recognizes that most smokers begin their habit in their teens, which means preventing early adoption is the key to ending "the tobacco epidemic."

"It could have a huge impact long term," Cunningham said. 

Earlier this year, New Zealand repealed its pioneering tobacco-free generation law, which would have banned sales to those born after Jan. 1, 2009. A new government elected in October said it planned to take a different approach.

The British government's proposed legislation for a similar ban, with the same cut-off date, cleared first reading in Parliament last month. Under the Tobacco and Vapes Bill, children turning 15 this year or younger will never legally be sold tobacco, creating modern Britain's "first smoke-free generation." The bill also includes measures to reduce youth vaping.

Opponents of the bill, such as a smokers' rights lobby group called Forest, said the proposed ban risks creating a black market and will "treat future generations of adults like kids."

In Canada, smoking is responsible for 47,000 premature deaths each year and remains the country's leading preventable cause of death, according to data compiled in 2022 by Statistics Canada. About 125 Canadians die every day of a smoking-related illness — more than the total of all deaths due to alcohol, opioids, suicides, murders and traffic collisions, according to the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction.

In P.E.I., about 13 per cent of residents over the age of 11 smoke daily, which is higher than the Canadian average.

"To reduce the impact of tobacco use in P.E.I., we need to prevent Island residents from beginning to use tobacco products, while helping those who do use tobacco products to quit," the consultation document says.

P.E.I.'s proposed restrictions do not apply to vaping products. 

Cunningham said that's a mistake. "The rate of youth vaping is three to four times the rate of youth smoking," he said. "If we want to prevent nicotine addiction among youth, we must include both tobacco products and vaping products."

Health officials say vaping remains popular with Island students, increasing from six per cent among students in Grade 7, to 35 per cent among those in Grade 12.

Still, P.E.I. health officials say the province is a national leader when it comes to smoking and nicotine vaping control. In 2020, the province became the first in Canada to increase the legal age to purchase tobacco or electronic smoking devices to 21 years old.

The legal age to buy tobacco in other parts of Canada is either 18 or 19.

In 2021, P.E.I. limited the sale of electronic smoking devices and e-liquids to "tobacconist shops," where admission is restricted to those old enough to legally buy tobacco.

The consultation document says provincial officials would also like to limit sales of tobacco products to tobacconist shops.

"There's no reason why cigarettes, an addictive lethal product, should be sold as an everyday product in convenience stores, gas stations and grocery stores," Cunningham said. "They are uniquely lethal and should be sold in a more controlled way."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 17, 2024.

— By Michael MacDonald in Halifax.

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