THE LEGAL smoking age would be increased to 21 under new proposals being considered in Scotland's war on smoking.

The Scottish Government is to host a conference later this year to discuss the possibility as a further step towards its goal of creating a ‘tobacco-free generation’ by 2034.

It is understood that ministers are still concerned enough to look at measures to reach younger smokers "more effectively". Officials, while accepting that levels of smoking and exposure to second-hand smoke among young people are at record lows in Scotland want to "continue this trend".

A conference on smoking is being planned for later in the year which will discuss whether to raise the legal age for buying tobacco from 18.

HeraldScotland:

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We have committed to facilitating a conference later this year where the permissible smoking age will be among the issues discussed. We will continue to consider what more can be done to reach 16-24 year olds more effectively, either through youth engagement or employment settings.”

Raising the age limit at which people can buy cigarettes to 21 would put Scotland on a par with only a few countries and cities in the world, including Honduras, Kuwait and New York City.

According to the Scottish Health Survey, smoking rates dropped in Scotland from 28% in 2003 to 18% in 2017, helped by the ban on smoking in bars, restaurants and public places approved 13 year ago. The 2034 smoke-free ambition would see numbers fall below 5 per cent.

READ MORE: Pupils who smoke 'should be helped to quit' not punished

The national smoking cessation database shows that in 2017/18 there were 7,463 successful smoking quitters in Scotland's most deprived areas handled by the NHS who were still abstaining after three months. But that was 1,761 short of the government target.

The target was set as smoking was seen as a key factor in health inequalities and is estimated to be linked to some 13,000 deaths and many more hospital admissions each year.

READ MORE: Pupils who smoke 'should be helped to quit' not punished 

The annual cost to NHS Scotland of treating smoking related diseases is estimated to exceed £300m.

HeraldScotland:

The percentage of 25 to 34-year-olds who are current smokers has stayed at 28% since 2014, while an average of 13,300 children aged 11-15 still start smoking each year.

The Scottish Government move has been criticised by pro-smoking group Forest who questioned the logic of the move.

Forest director Simon Clark said: “If you’re old enough to vote, drive a car and join the army at 18 you are old enough to make an informed choice to smoke.

“Smoking rates have been falling in all age groups for years. Raising the smoking age is gesture politics that will achieve very little apart from infantilising young adults.

“If teenagers are of a mind to smoke they will smoke regardless of the age they can buy cigarettes, and if smoking becomes more illicit it may also become more attractive, undoing years of anti-smoking education in schools.”

The development comes a matter of days after the UK All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Smoking and Health suggested the smoking age should be increased to 21 while mounting a crackdown on tobacco giants and cigarette use in TV.

HeraldScotland:

The APPG, backed by 17 health charities and medical organisations, said the tobacco industry should face levies which reflected the habit's cost to society and that funding should be funnelled towards stop-smoking initiatives. It said tobacco duty should be raised to make smoking less affordable.

“Smoking remains the leading cause of premature death and health inequalities,” said Tory MP Bob Blackman, chairman of the group. “Ratcheting up tobacco regulation further and faster is essential to achieve the government’s vision for prevention, to increase healthy life expectancy while reducing inequalities between the richest and poorest in society.”

READ MORE: SNP in row over conference fees from tobacco giants

Action on Smoking and Health, and 16 other health and welfare organisations, including the British Medical Association, Cancer Research UK, the Royal College of Physicians and the British Heart Foundation have called for the collection and publication of tobacco manufacturers’ sales and marketing data, to monitor the evolving behaviour of the industry, and inserts for cigarette packs with messages encouraging people to quit.

In the summer, ministers proposed a ban on smoking in council homes among a raft of radical new measures being considered as part of the “next steps” to make Scotland smoke-free by 2034.

A crackdown on smoking in open public places where children are present such as play parks were also included in the blueprint, while smoking outside hospitals were also proposed to be outlawed.

The strategy was unveiled after recent figures showed smoking cessation in Scotland had fallen to a record low, prompting fears the 2034 target may not be reached.