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Column '8 per cent of young people aged 10 to 17 smoke cigarettes'

We need smoking prevention efforts to ensure smoking rates continue to drop among all young people, writes Donal Buggy.

FOR THE FIRST time, young people born in this millennium will sit the Leaving Certificate when it begins in earnest next week. While most of these students will have made important decisions through their CAO forms on where they see themselves in years to come, another decision they may have made years earlier could put a cruel halt to their futures.

According to 2014 statistics, 8 per cent of young people aged 10-17 smoke cigarettes. Based on last year’s census figures, that means 40,260 children and adolescents in that age bracket are tobacco users. The problem is amplified when we know that nearly eight in ten smokers begin the habit before they reach their 18th birthday.

Smoking is the single biggest preventable cause of cancer in Ireland, causing one in three cancers overall and nine in ten lung cancers. If we end smoking, then as a country we will have delivered the biggest blow to cancer possible. That’s why we fight tobacco with everything we’ve got. A massive step towards this is discouraging young people from taking up smoking in the first place.

Stopping children before they start

Ireland has worked especially hard in seeking to reduce smoking levels over the past 30 years and, thanks in significant part to campaigning from the Irish Cancer Society, we are succeeding. Successive governments have supported efforts aimed at stopping children before they start.

Today’s 17-year-olds have seen a radical change in our approach to tackling tobacco in their lifetimes. When they turned four the workplace smoking ban began. At age seven a ban on ten-packs was introduced; two years later saw the prohibition on in-store advertising.

At age 13 they witnessed the inclusion of graphic health warnings on cigarette packets, while a ban on smoking in cars with children came into force last year. In 2013, the government pledged to take steps to protect children from the harms of tobacco and denormalise smoking as part of the vision to achieve a tobacco-free Ireland by 2025.

Now we are on the cusp of seeing the plain packaging of tobacco become a reality. We know from the experience of plain packaging in Australia that it is a very effective measure in tobacco control that will reduce smoking rates, plain and simple. It is especially useful in stopping young people from smoking.

In Australia the daily smoking rate among 12-17 year olds has fallen to just 5 per cent. Once introduced, plain packaging has the potential to influence positive perceptions and attitudes to tobacco products created by branding.

Now, smoking seems less normal

All of these efforts has made smoking seem less normal and attractive to everyone, but especially children. The rate of young smokers in Ireland has continuously declined in recent years. However, we cannot be complacent, the battle is not won yet.

At least half of all young smokers are expected to die prematurely from a tobacco-related disease. These are preventable deaths. We cannot stop until we see a tobacco free generation for Ireland.

We need to ensure our efforts reach the young people that are most at risk of taking up smoking, who tend to come from more disadvantaged backgrounds. Seven per cent more 15–17 year-old-girls from lower social backgrounds smoke compared to their peers in the highest social class.

Even in earlier childhood, more third and fourth class children from lower social backgrounds are smoking. We need smoking prevention efforts to address these disparities and ensure rates continue to drop among all young people.

Despite the positive developments and impact of tobacco control legislation in recent years, the fight against smoking cannot be considered finished with the enacting of a bill into law. In 2014, 30 per cent of 12-17 year-olds in Ireland said that it is easy to buy cigarettes and 59 per cent thought it would be easy to get someone to buy cigarettes for them. These figures show the importance of compliance monitoring and work on the ground with communities to strengthen support for tobacco control among young people through collaborative effort, education and advocacy.

The X-HALE initiative

The Irish Cancer Society has been tackling the issue through X-HALE, a community initiative established in 2011 in partnership with youth organisations and young people across Ireland. In order to reach young people aged 10-24 that are most at risk of tobacco use, much of X-HALE’s funding goes to youth groups in disadvantaged areas.

X-HALE’s peer education approach seeks to harness the potential for young people to drive the movement towards a tobacco free generation among their friends, communities and wider networks. Young people and youth organisations are supported to improve their knowledge about smoking and sharing important messages with their peers through film, music, social media and community action.

Irish research indicates that young people whose friends do not smoke are the most likely to abstain from smoking.

This combined approach to tackling tobacco at policy and community level means that the students sitting their Leaving and Junior Certificates next week are wiser and better informed about the impact of smoking than previous generations. They no longer accept the lies of the tobacco industry. More and more, they are saying no to big tobacco. In a time when there is often a lot said about what is wrong with the youth of today, this is something to be celebrated and commended.

Donal Buggy is Head of Services and Advocacy at the Irish Cancer Society. World No Tobacco Day is marked today May 31st.

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