A leading cancer charity today questioned why new UK tobacco laws banning the sale of cigarettes to under-18s do not extend to Northern Ireland - and urged them to be introduced here swiftly.
The Ulster Cancer Foundation (UCF) said it felt "very let down " that the new ruling from London does not yet apply to the province.
A new law raising the legal age of buying tobacco from 16 to 18 comes into force across England, Scotland and Wales today, bringing it in to line with alcohol. The Republic of Ireland has also already raised its legal age to 18.
The Department of Health in London hopes the move will cut the number of teenage smokers and has promised a crackdown on retailers who flout the law.
The UCF said it understood that there would be a public consultation on the changes before any changes are made to bring Northern Ireland into line.
Gerry McElwee, head of cancer prevention with the UCF, said: " Increasing the legal age that young people can buy tobacco means a reduction in the sale of cigarettes to those who are underage.
"We know that the majority of smokers become addicted to cigarettes before they reach the age of 18, so raising the age at which young people can buy cigarettes will help to reduce the number of smokers overall."
He said he had hoped the matter would not be delayed by going out to public consultation.
"However, if this is the case we would call for a short and clear process that will lead to prompt resolution and bring equity on this issue across the UK," he said.
"If such a measure is introduced to Northern Ireland it must be accompanied by a comprehensive enforcement strategy as well as additional education and awareness raising among young people about the dangers of smoking.
"It is dangerous at any age, but the younger people start smoking the more likely they are to develop serious health effects in later life, including cancer and heart disease," he added.
"We feel very let down that this new age limit will not extend to Northern Ireland, thus keeping us in line with the rest of the UK and Ireland."
A spokesman for the British Retail Consortium said it backed a move to bring tobacco in line with alcohol, fireworks and glue in England, Scotland and Wales.
"Retailers are well aware of the change and have been doing their bit to inform customers," he said. "But, from today, we will see how successful the Government's promised campaign has been in preventing stores becoming conflict flashpoints as shop staff say 'no' to 16 and 17-year-olds who have been able to buy cigarettes previously."