A policy group from the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland is calling for the minimum age of sale of tobacco to be raised from 18 to 21.

The Tobacco 21 report, published today, says raising the minimum legal age for the sale of tobacco products in Ireland would reduce the number of teenagers and young adults who become addicted to tobacco, and could cut smoking rates by 25% among young teenagers.

It states this is fundamental to achieving the Department of Health's Tobacco Free Ireland targets.

According to the RCPI, around 4,500 people die in Ireland each year from the effects of smoking, making it the single biggest contributor to early death. Thousands more suffer from smoking-related diseases, including heart and lung disease, and cancers.

"Tobacco 21 is a simple and effective step on the road to tobacco endgame. It requires only simple amendments to existing legislation and already has strong public support," said Chair of the RCPI Policy Group on Tobacco Profesor Des Cox.

"Most smokers start to smoke in their teenage years, but the age at which they are starting is rising over time. The earlier a young person starts smoking the more likely they are to become addicted and the harder it can be to quit."

He added that after decades of progress, tobacco control is now "stagnation" and there is an increase in tobacco use among teenage boys.

Speaking on RTÉ's Morning Ireland, Prof Cox said that the common argument put forward about people being able to make important decisions that affect their lives, such as voting, marriage, and decision on health from the age of 18 does not stand up to scrutiny as these things do not "kill half their users as tobacco does".

He said that if tobacco was introduced to the market now it would not be legalised and children needed to be protected against the dangers of tobacco.

Ireland was not going to achieve the nationwide target of reducing smoking to 5% by 2025 with the policies currently in place, he said.

Prof Cox said that most teenagers report finding it easy to get cigarettes directly at the shop or through friends, adding that experimentation with smoking is highest between children aged 15 to 17.

"But this cohort is less likely to have access to peer networks over 21 who could purchase for them," he said.

Although the RCPI is not calling for raising the age of vaping to 21, Prof Cox said it is known that young people who vape three-to-five-times more likely to move on to tobacco products.

"Obviously there is a separate issue in regard to youth vaping, which is significantly increasing, especially among teenagers and young adults across the world, but in Ireland as well."

According to the RCPI statement, international modelling suggests that the report's policies can reduce smoking rates by up to 25% among those aged between 15 and 17 and by up to 15% among 18-20-year-olds.

The report examines the implementation, public awareness and enforcement measures required to effectively roll out the age raise.

According to a recent survey of public opinion, 71% of the population aged 15 years and older are in favour of increasing the minimum legal age for tobacco sale to 21.

"Ireland has led in this space before. Innovative policies such as smoke-free workplaces in 2004 and standardised packaging in 2018 have been effective, but we need more ambitious measures to save lives," Prof Cox said.

"This is an opportunity for Ireland to once again be a European and global leader in tobacco control."