Auckland Regional Public Health Service (ARPHS) last month identified nine retailers illegally selling tobacco to teenagers over just a two-week period.
Dean Adam, Health Improvement Manager for ARPHS, says the figure is thought to be the highest the service has encountered over such a short period, showing illegal access to tobacco remains a serious threat to young people’s health.
“Retailers must ask for ID from anyone buying tobacco who looks under 25, but since July last year we’ve identified 29 outlets that have failed to comply with that law”.
Mr. Adam says the most recent nine comprised dairies, convenience stores, superettes, a petrol station, and a vape and hookah store – all in the Auckland CBD area.
“But there have also been 17 South Auckland and three East Auckland outlets who have failed to comply in the past ten months,” he says.
ARPHS has carried out controlled purchase operations (CPOs) for more than two decades to identify illegal sales and educate tobacco retailers on the importance of asking for ID. But Mr Adam says the recent increase in failures shows that education is not enough.
“There is no tobacco licencing scheme in New Zealand, meaning there are no restrictions on who is allowed to sell tobacco and where they can sell it. Tobacco has become as readily available as milk and bread, he says.
“What’s really concerning is that we’ve been carrying out many of our latest CPOs in communities where people are already smoking more and dying earlier than in other parts of Auckland. Cigarettes need to be less readily available to young people in these areas, not more so.”
In New Zealand, the average age of starting smoking is just 14.8 years and some will be addicted after just a few cigarettes. It is illegal to sell cigarettes to anyone under 18.
“Every time a retailer sells cigarettes to a minor they’re helping them along that path to addiction and disease,” he says.
Evidence suggests that if you reach 25 without starting, then you’re never likely to smoke. But around one in seven New Zealanders aged 15 or over are already smoking, with Māori and Pacific youth over-represented.
“What’s really heartbreaking is that nearly half of the young people who smoke say they want to stop, and more than 60 percent have tried in the past year, but only one in five actually manage to stay smoke-free. That’s exactly why we target underage sales,” he says.
Retailers who flout the law face penalties including criminal convictions and fines ranging from $500 to $10,000. The fine must be paid by the individual who made the illegal sale.
Auckland Regional Public Health Service, which also carries out a range of other activities to prevent smoking related harm, has carried out thousands of CPOs since they were first introduced in the mid-1990s.
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About ‘controlled purchase operations’ (CPOs)
Auckland Regional Public Health Service carries out ‘controlled purchase operations’ on premises that sell tobacco products. Controlled purchase operations involve volunteers under the age of 18 years who, within a safe environment, attempt to purchase tobacco products. ARPHS uses this as a way to educate and teach tobacco retailers on the importance of asking for and checking identification of anyone purchasing tobacco. Around 300 tobacco retailers are visited annually.
Youth smoking snapshot