Ottawa Public Health (OPH) is calling on the federal government to follow the example of New Zealand's "smoke-free generation" law, which sought to ban cigarette sales to anyone born after 2008 for their entire lifetime.
Even though the New Zealand policy is now at risk due to a new government's plans to abandon it, OPH recommended Health Canada adopt a "similar approach" as it reviews the Tobacco and Vaping Products Act.
According to OPH, current restrictions are not sufficient to protect young people from addiction. It also pushed for a federal minimum age of 21 to buy tobacco, nicotine and vaping products.
An Ottawa doctor specializing in smoking cessation called the generational ban "an exceptionally good idea," but an expert in drug and alcohol policy warned it would repeat failed experiments in prohibition that only benefit the black market.
Last year, then-prime minister Jacinda Ardern's government passed legislation to gradually raise the smoking age to prevent anyone born on or after Jan. 1, 2009 from ever being able to buy cigarettes legally in New Zealand. The ban was set to come into effect in 2027.
The policy also would have restricted the number of retailers allowed to sell cigarettes and limited concentrations of nicotine to non-addictive levels.
Last month's elections produced a new coalition government in New Zealand, which this week said it plans to reverse that law, at least partly, to fund tax cuts.
OPH said it had no one available to comment on its proposals, which appeared in a report to the city's board of health.
In that document, OPH explained that New Zealand shares Canada's goal of cutting the smoking rate to below five per cent.
'Abundant good sense' or boon for criminals?
Dr. Andrew Pipe, a professor at the University of Ottawa's faculty of medicine and an expert on smoking cessation, said the proposal "makes abundant good sense."
He went further, saying the generational ban should apply to all nicotine products — not just cigarettes.
"It's a very good way of restricting access to tobacco products," he said. "You have a cohort of young people who are completely unable to purchase nicotine products, and that's important because nicotine is the most tenaciously addictive drug we deal with in our community."
New Zealand's policy is "world-leading" and "innovative," according to Sir Collin Tukuitonga, president of the New Zealand College of Public Health Medicine.
In an interview with CBC, he said there's still time for that government to reverse itself.
He said the model is realistic for Canada and noted the United Kingdom already plans to copy it. New Zealand's smoking rate is already low, at around eight per cent, but Tukuitonga said it can get lower.
"We think that the whole package of things — education, legislation, reducing availability through a limited number of outlets — all of those things will overall lead to a continued reduction," he said.
Sarah Butson, public affairs and policy analyst with the Canadian Lung Association, said it's "unnecessary" for young people to be able to buy tobacco in the future, given the harms associated with smoking.
"This is a strategy that makes a lot of sense to make sure that our younger generations simply cannot get these products in their hands," she said.
"We know that public education, unfortunately with most health issues, only goes so far."
Sarah Butson from the Canadian Lung Association says she agrees with the New Zealand policy because public education 'only goes so far.' (Submitted by Sarah Butson)
Dan Malleck, a professor of health sciences at Brock University who specializes in drug and alcohol regulation, called the policy another example of prohibition — which has a long history of failure.
"Prohibition never works. This is prohibition. It's just generational," he said. "There's a lot of ways to get your hands on something you want to try, and if you make something illegal, for some people it becomes more appealing."
He noted that past experiments with prohibition provided ample opportunities for criminal networks to profit.
"There's established smuggling networks. People will continue to do this," he said. "It would be better for public health to focus on limiting the negative effects on others, which we've done fairly successfully."
Malleck noted the proportion of young people smoking is already dropping. He said the most successful strategies for curtailing smoking rely on providing alternatives, not bans.
More vendors selling to minors, OPH says
In addition to the smoking age recommendations, OPH is also urging Health Canada to ban smoking and vaping on federal lands, like parks, trails and beaches, and to regulate nicotine product placement in streaming and social media, including by influencers.
The agency is also pushing for financial incentives for smoking cessation counselling or medication, and for smoking cessation training for tobacco and vaping vendors.
According to OPH, tobacco enforcement officers have noted a significant increase in vendors selling to people under 19 in Ottawa recently.
There have been 114 charges and seven warnings during youth access inspections so far this year, according to OPH — a new record.