5.11 Accessibility of tobacco products to young smokers

Last updated: October 2019 (& July 2020)
Suggested citation: Purcell, K., & Hanley-Jones, S. 5.11 Accessibility of tobacco products to young smokers. In Scollo, MM and Winstanley, MH [editors]. Tobacco in Australia: Facts and issues. Melbourne: Cancer Council Victoria; 2019. Available from: https://www.tobaccoinaustralia.org.au/chapter-5-uptake/5-11-accessibility-tobacco-products-young

Adolescent access to cigarettes contributes to initiation of smoking.1-4

There is some evidence that children of smokers are more likely to begin smoking at an early age, that they are most likely to procure their cigarettes from home (with or without parental knowledge), and that this group helps to ‘seed’ smoking among their peers.5, 6 Regardless of who supplies their early cigarettes, once smoking is initiated, young smokers adapt their means of access to fit the prevailing social and legislative environment.7

Data from the National Drug Strategy Household Survey (2016)8 shows that the majority of young people generally obtain cigarettes from friends and relatives. In 2016, 62.1% of young people aged 12–17 years surveyed obtained their cigarettes from a friend or relative, rather than purchasing through a retailer. Furthermore,  75.5% of smokers and ex-smokers aged 12–17 reported sourcing their first ever cigarette from a friend or acquaintance.8 Data from the Australian Secondary School Students’ Alcohol and Drug Survey in 2017 also confirms that the most common ways for adolescents to access cigarettes was through friends (48% of current smokers) and asking someone else to buy them (15% of current smokers).9 Although it is illegal to sell tobacco products to children under the age of 18 years in all states and territories of Australia, overall, 16% of current smokers aged 12–17 years in 2017 reported that they bought their last cigarette (compared with 23% in 2005 and 20% in 2008). In general, the likelihood of having made a personal purchase increases with age, and with frequency of smoking behaviour.   

Consistent with efforts by states and territories to strengthen and enforce legislation to reduce illegal sale of tobacco to children, trend data show that there has been a large decrease over time in the proportion of current smokers purchasing their cigarettes. In 1987 more than half of students aged 12–17 years purchased their last cigarette compared with 18% in 2017. 9 Similarly, in the UK the proportion of young people purchasing their own cigarettes from newsagents, tobacconists or sweet shops has declined rapidly, in line with implementation of tobacco access legislation—from 65% in 2006, to 46% in 2014, and 23% in 2018.10—see Section 5.21 for further details.

Research from New Zealand has shown that students with both parents smoking were much more likely to obtain cigarettes from family than students with neither parent smoking. Socio-economic status and living in highly populated areas were also factors significantly associated with purchase of tobacco.6 With those living in higher population density and those attending schools with a higher socio demographic decile both more likely to purchase tobacco.6

Greater density of tobacco retailers has been suggested as an important factor in the uptake of smoking—see sections 5.21.4 and 11.9.6 for a detailed discussion.

Relevant news and research

For recent news items and research on this topic, click  here. ( Last updated July 2020)


1. US Department of Health and Human Services. Preventing tobacco use among young people: A report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta, GA: US Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health, 2012. Available from: http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/sgr/2012/.

2. Tyas S and Pederson L. Psychosocial factors related to adolescent smoking: A critical review of the literature. Tobacco Control, 1999; 7(4):409–20. Available from: http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/7/4/409

3. US Department of Health and Human Services. Reducing tobacco use: A report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta, Georgia: US Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health, 2000. Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/sgr/2000/index.htm.

4. Sargent J and DiFranza J. Tobacco control for clinicians who treat adolescents. CA A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, 2003; 53(2):102–23. Available from: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.3322/canjclin.53.2.102

5. DiFranza J and Coleman M. Sources of tobacco for youths in communities with strong enforcement of youth access laws. Tobacco Control, 2001; 10:323–8. Available from: http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/cgi/reprint/10/4/323

6. Nelson R, Paynter J, and Arroll B. Factors influencing cigarette access behaviour among 14-15-year-olds in New Zealand: A cross-sectional study. Journal of Primary Health Care, 2011; 3(2):114–22. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21625659

7. Dent C and Biglan A. Relation between access to tobacco and adolescent smoking. Tobacco Control, 2004; 13(4):334–8. Available from: http://tc.bmjjournals.com/cgi/content/abstract/13/4/334

8. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2016: Detailed findings. Drug Statistics series no. 31., AIHW Cat. no. PHE 214.Canberra: AIHW, 2017. Available from: https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/illicit-use-of-drugs/2016-ndshs-detailed/contents/table-of-contents.

9.         Guerin N and White V. Australian Secondary School Students’ Use of Tobacco, Alcohol, Over the Counter Drugs, and Illicit Substances: Second Edition. Melbourne: Cancer Council Victoria, 2020. Available from: https://www.health.gov.au/resources/publications/secondary-school-students-use-of-tobacco-alcohol-and-other-drugs-in-2017

10. Lifestyles Team. Smoking, drinking and drug use among young people in England - 2018. NHS Digital, England 2019. Available from: https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/smoking-drinking-and-drug-use-among-young-people-in-england/2018.