Tough new measures to discourage the sale of tobacco to children have been passed by the Northern Ireland Assembly.
The Tobacco Retailers Bill creates a register of traders and introduces steps to deal with persistent offenders. It aims to restrict the availability of cigarettes to those aged under 18 and target adults who buy for children.
The number of deaths involving cigarettes is extraordinarily high, members of the devolved assembly said, with the highest smoking prevalence rate in the UK.
The main purpose of the new law is to ensure that the minimum age of sale policy for tobacco products is more rigorously applied by shop owners, by introducing stricter penalties for non-compliance.
Health Minister Edwin Poots said: “This bill will help reduce the number of young people taking up smoking and will ultimately help to save lives in Northern Ireland.”
He told the Stormont Assembly near Belfast that most smokers took up the habit before adulthood. More than 357,000 adults are smokers, a quarter of the total population.
The latest research shows that 8% of 11 to 16-year-olds use tobacco.
Every year, around 2,300 people in Northern Ireland die from smoking-related illnesses, about 45 a week. Each year hospitals record about 17,000 tobacco-related admissions.
The estimated hospital costs of treating tobacco-related diseases are around £164 million each year.
Mr Poots added: “Given the widespread damage caused by smoking, it is incumbent on us, as legislators, to ensure that we do everything in our power to prevent people becoming addicted to this lethal habit.
“As Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, I want to further discourage the unlawful sale of cigarettes to young people as much as possible.”
The senior Democratic Unionist said the bill will provide a strong deterrent to retailers from selling tobacco to under-18s and will also create an effective enforcement tool for local councils.
“I have no doubt that the vast majority of retailers are conscientious and law abiding. However, the evidence shows that shops continue to be the main source of tobacco for under-18s,” he added.
Maeve McLaughlin, Sinn Fein chair of Stormont’s Health Committee, said the legislation was a step forward and welcomed strict sanctions against retailers who continue to sell to under-18s.
“The Assembly can congratulate itself on getting this bill onto the statute book,” she added.
Nationalist SDLP MLA Pat Ramsey said: “The fact remains that 2,300 people die here every year from smoking related illnesses, which is an extraordinarily high figure.
“Furthermore, over 80% of smokers actually started within their teenage years and it is therefore incumbent on the Assembly to actively attempt to reduce the number of our young people who take up smoking.
“If we can put statutory measures in place now that will reduce the availability of cigarettes to younger people then we will lessen the likelihood of progressive smoking habits that may manifest through their 20s and 30s and we will eventually begin to tackle the prevalence of smoking related illnesses within our society.”
MPs have backed calls for a ban on smoking in cars in England and Wales when children are passengers.
Naomi Thompson, cancer prevention officer at the Cancer Focus Northern Ireland charity, said: “This is a crucial step in preventing children and young people from buying cigarettes, and therefore protecting them from addiction to cigarettes and improving their health and well-being throughout life.
“The move will also help reduce the health inequalities that smoking causes. We would ask our MLAs to continue this positive work by supporting our call to ban smoking in cars carrying children.”