A National Approach for Reducing Access to Tobacco in Australia by Young People under 18 Years of Age

Case Study 3: Victoria Western Region Tobacco Project Report

Case Study 3: Victoria Western Region Tobacco Project Report - A National Approach for Reducing Access to Tobacco in Australia by Young People under 18 Years of Age

Page last updated: 26 April 2012

The Victorian Tobacco Act 1987 (hereafter ‘the Act’) was the first broad tobacco control legislation in Australia. The Act aims to reduce smoking prevalence, through smoking cessation and discouraging the uptake of smoking, particularly among young people. Environmental Health Officers (EHOs) employed by Local Government Authorities administer the provisions of the Act.

Section 12(1) of the Act is specifically designed to discourage smoking among young people. It states, ‘A person must not sell a tobacco product to a person under the age of 18 years’. The maximum penalty for breaching this provision is currently $1,000 for a first offence and $2,000 for subsequent offences.

Anecdotal reports suggest that Local Government Authorities are sometimes reluctant to enforce section 12 of the Act. Prior to the commencement of the Western Region Tobacco Project, only two Local Government Authorities in Victoria had instigated legal proceedings for selling cigarettes to minors.

In response to high levels of teenage smoking in Victoria and evidence in relation to high levels of cigarette sales to minors in the Western region of Melbourne, a research project was initiated in January 1998 to test whether the incidence of cigarette sales to minors could be reduced through a range of interventions. Funded by the Department of Human Services and managed by the Environmental Health Coordinator of Hobson’s Bay City Council, the project involved a collaborative effort between State Government, Local Government and the non Government sector. The study concluded in June 1999.

In order to analyse the impact of intervention strategies on tobacco retailer compliance with the cigarette sales to minors provisions of the Act, six participating Local Government Areas in the Western region of Melbourne were randomly assigned as ‘experimental’ or ‘control’ case study conditions; Hobsons Bay, Brimbank, Maribyrnong, Melton, Moonee Valley and Wyndham. Two types of intervention were applied to the experimental areas:

  • Community and retailer education about cigarette sales to minors.
  • Law enforcement, whereby Local Government Authorities instituted legal proceedings for breaches of section 12 of the Act, combined with media coverage of any prosecutions.

The project also established a designated 24 hour cigarette sales to minors report line in April 1998. The report line was promoted as a way for people to report alleged incidents of cigarette sales to minors.

To measure the impact of the education and enforcement interventions, two types of surveys were conducted across the six case study areas of the Western region:
  • Community attitude (telephone) surveys of randomly selected adults. The surveys were designed to measure the community’s knowledge about, and attitude to, cigarette sales to minors, and any changes over the course of the project.
  • Compliance checks on randomly selected tobacco retailers. The purpose of the checks was to measure any changes in retailer’s behaviour over the course of the project in relation to compliance with section 12 of the Act. Minors aged 14–17 years were recruited to undertake test purchases (where they attempt to buy cigarettes) to check compliance with the Act.

The project supported seven prosecutions, with six out of seven prosecutions instituted by the City of Brimbank. On each occasion, the accused was found guilty of breaching section 12 of the Act.

Key outcomes of the project included:
  • Significant reductions in cigarette sales to minors in the experimental case study areas of Moonee Valley and Brimbank. (Brimbank received significant media coverage of prosecution outcomes, particularly for the first prosecution).
  • A significant increase in the number of cigarette sales to minors complaints during the project compared with the number of calls in the two years preceding the project. Brimbank received the highest level of cigarette sales to minors complaints over the course of the project relative to the other experimental groups and the control group.
  • Evidence that, although most retailers were aware of the minimum legal age for purchasing cigarettes, many were unsure of what proof of age is acceptable in determining a young person’s age.

Findings from the community attitude surveys included:
  • A high level of community concern about cigarette sales to minors. On average 86 per cent of those surveyed in the first and second survey reported at least ‘quite a bit’ of concern about the impact of smoking on young people’s health.
  • A high level of support for retailers selling tobacco to minors being fined. On average 92 per cent of those surveyed considered retailers should be fined for selling cigarettes to minors.

The three retailer compliance checks found:
  • A disproportionate number of cigarette sales to minors occurred at milkbars and service station convenience stores (compared to supermarkets, newsagents, takeaways and tobacconists).
  • A significant positive association between retailers requesting identification and refusal to sell cigarettes to a minor.
  • A strong positive association between retailers asking for proof of age and presence of cigarette sales to minors warning signs.
  • Retailers perceived by test purchasers to be over 18 were consistently reported to be more likely to refuse to sell cigarettes to minors than retailers perceived to be under 18.

Key conclusions from the study include:
  • The increased compliance levels in Brimbank and Moonee Valley corresponded with the timing of the prosecution cases against tobacco retailers sponsored by these two Local Government Authorities. A combination of education (community and retailer) and enforcement appears to impact on tobacco retailer compliance levels. However, enforcement combined with media publicity appears to be a more powerful influence on retailer behaviour than education alone.
  • A designated telephone line for reporting cigarette sales to minors does not appear justified. Supported by a community education campaign and some media coverage during the project, the report line received only 14 calls over 14 months.
  • In regard to the education strategy, the response from community groups, schools and retailers in relation to information resources forwarded to them was generally poor. However, targeting community groups with education and information resources can have an important consciousness raising function which may, by harnessing community pressure on retailers, contribute to more effective enforcement of the Act in the longer term.

The report also makes a number of recommendations in light of the project findings to address the issue of cigarette sales to minors in the short term, as well as recommendations to address the problem of teenage smoking in a more strategic and sustainable manner—for example, through the introduction of a tobacco retailer registration system.
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