The headlines yesterday proclaimed that New York City is thinking of raising the age to purchase cigarettes from 18 to 21. Now Chicago announced it may also raise the minimum age. Considering most life time smoking has already started by the time the kids turn 18, raising the legal age could “discourage, or at least delay” the start of this dangerous addiction. A higher legal age would also help prevent older friends from being able to purchase tobacco for younger acquaintances.
While New York City discusses this new proposal, one Massachusetts town has already raised the legal age to 21. The town of Needham saw its high school smoking rate drop from 13% to 5.5% since the 21-year-old limit took effect in 2006. Canton, Massachusetts also plans to make the change to 21 later this month, but with a provision–if smoking rates among high school students don’t decline, the law will be eliminated.
Opponents point to the fact that the measure would hurt convenience stores that rely on tobacco sales which make up to 40% of their revenues. It would also hurt state revenues which count on cigarette sales tax. Good news is that it would further discourage the younger generation from starting a deadly habit. Over time it would also reduce costs from lost productivity due to smoking. It will also reduce health care costs in the future if fewer people have smoking related illnesses.
According to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, the addiction rate for smoking is higher than the addiction rates for marijuana, alcohol or cocaine. And the peak years for trying that first cigarette is between 11-13. Those who become addicted do so before even leaving high school. Of those who become adult smokers, 80% begin by 18 and 90% by the time they hit 20. Along with addiction to tobacco, smoking “accelerates the development of chronic diseases,” many of which present themselves long after the initial onset of smoking in the teen years.
Here in the U.S. you must be 21 before purchasing and consuming alcohol, and under-aged consumers are given fines. Why should tobacco, a product that causes more deaths each year than HIV, illegal drug use, alcohol use, motor vehicle injuries, suicides and murders combined, be any different? If we consider tobacco use among our young people a serious problem, then we have to be serious in our efforts to do something about the problem. Raising the minimum smoking age is a good first step.