Commentary

John Hughes: Raise age for cigarette purchase to 21

Editor’s note: This commentary is by John R. Hughes, MD, who is a professor at the Vermont Center on Health and Behavior at the University of Vermont. These are his personal views.

We have a good opportunity in this legislative session, to dramatically improve the health of Vermont young adults. Sens. Alison Clarkson, Carolyn Whitney Branagan, Ginny Lyons and Anthony Pollina have introduced a bill that would raise the legal sale age for cigarettes and other tobacco products from 18 to 21.

The statistics about adolescent smoking are sobering: 10,000 Vermont kids alive now and under the age of 18 will die prematurely from smoking. Almost all (95 percent) of adult cigarette smokers started before their 21st birthdays and four out of five of those who did so became daily smokers. The National Academy of Medicine concluded that raising the age to 21, either abruptly or gradually, would decrease youth tobacco use by 12 percent and tobacco-related deaths by 10 percent. So, if we can delay the availability of cigarettes to age 21 why wouldn’t we?

The 18-year-old purchase age was set decades ago. Since then, research has shown that kids under age 21 become addicted faster than adults and they have a harder time quitting. In addition, adolescents who begin smoking early on are much more likely to fall into addiction on heroin, cocaine and marijuana. Raising the age for alcohol purchase to 21 has not only reduced traffic accidents but also decreased rates of developing alcohol addiction in young adults and there is no reason to think the same will not be true for smoking.

Vermont lawmakers have it within their power to make a difference.

 

More than 200 towns and cities across the U.S. as well as the states of California and Hawaii have already raised the minimum sale age to 21. They have found few problems if enforcement focuses on retailers, not adolescents. In fact, 75 percent of adult smokers endorse raising the age to 21.

Raising the age is not a panacea. We need to keep up our current efforts to dissuade adolescents from smoking. The Vermont Tobacco Control Program has been successful. The rate of youth smoking has been cut over half, but still 25 percent of youth use tobacco. In recent years, only 10 percent of the monies obtained from the tobacco industry as compensation for the harm it has inflicted has been used for tobacco control, and the Legislature keeps cutting it even more. We absolutely must keep up our efforts either by funding the program from tobacco industry monies or, like many states, by dedicating a small percent of Vermont tobacco taxes to tobacco control.

If we can reduce rates, lives will be saved and thousands of families won’t see their loved ones go down a deadly path. Vermont lawmakers have it within their power to make a difference. Without a doubt, they should pass S.88. There is no downside and the benefits are compelling.

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  • Edward Letourneau

    So lets also raise the age people can get married and drive a car to 21 too. That will save even more.

    • JohnGreenberg

      Edward Letourneau:

      How will either of your proposals save anything?

  • Jim_lovell

    Second hand smoke is just as dangerous. A smoking parent or partner who exposes their children to second hand smoke is doing even more damage, resulting in lung damage and disease much earlier in age than an 18 year old with healthy lungs. This law is not the answer.

    • JohnGreenberg

      Jim Lovell:
      “This law is not the answer.” To what question? To second hand smoking? You’re right. It isn’t. It’s not the answer to the Middle East crisis or unemployment either. So what?

      The proposal appears to reduce the magnitude of a serious problem and by doing so, to save lives. Like Dr. Hughes so far, I can’t see a downside. If there is none, let’s make this change.

  • Ken Egnaczak

    Lets stop putting a “band-aid” on this and ban tobacco. It is poison. Even marijuana has a medical use, is there a medical use for tobacco ? Oh but wait, the government makes a buck off tobacco…….I guess that we won’t see a ban anytime soon…..

    • JohnGreenberg

      Ken Egnaczak:

      Haven’t we been down this road with alcohol? Are you seriously recommending prohibition after what happened with liquor?

      • Ken Egnaczak

        John Greenberg

        Essentially this ruling would “ban” tobacco from anyone under 21 years old. If they can effectively ban tobacco from this age group then they should be able to ban the stuff from all age groups. If it cannot be controlled then this ruling is worthless. I see your point though, banning narcotics wasn’t very effective.

        As for what happened to alcohol, we have a big bureacracy called the ATF controlling that. And of course the gov’t makes a buck off alcohol too.

        • Cheryl Ganley

          You do realize the T in ATF stands for Tobacco? All governments (local, state and federal) have a vested financial interest in tobacco.

  • Nachman Avruch

    If someone is an adult at 18, they should have all the legal rights and responsibilities of a citizen. These age restrictions that release at 21 are illogical and inconsistent; either raise the age of adulthood, or stop issuing restrictions that impair the rights of legal adults.

    • JohnGreenberg

      Nate Awrich:
      “If someone is an adult at 18, they should have all the legal rights and responsibilities of a citizen” Why?

  • Dave Bellini

    Make sale of tobacco products illegal. This would not stop people from smoking but it would make it less convenient. Retailers whose primary products are smokes and potato chips could sell something else.

    • Doug Eisler

      They tried that with alcohol. It didn’t pan out so well.

  • Dave Silberman

    Clearly, tobacco is dangerous, harms our kids, and even causes havoc on the roads as drivers are distracted by having one hand not fully on the wheel. Allowing its legal possession by adults sends a message to kids that it’s OK for them. The most obvious solution is to punish adults with a jail term of between 6 and 24 months for possessing more 60 cigarettes, or 5 years for possessing 90 or more cigarettes. Further, the sale of tobacco should be punished with heavy fines and prison sentences of up to 25 years. Only then can we effectively prevent teen smoking.

    • Doug Eisler

      And then we should start making it mandatory for people to wear walking helmets in case they fall down while walking. For the kids sake.

      • Dave Silberman

        No, Doug, we need to ban walking until we figure this falling-while-walking thing out.

    • Michael Olcott

      i have to presume that the latter part of your comment was sarcasm. the sad thing is that i can roll a cig while driving and still hold a lane better than the cellphone zombies out there. something i have always wondered is why there are not plans to reduce the amount of nicotine in tobacco as its already heavily regulated and its been proven the processors can increase or decrease this deadly addictive chemical.

      • Dave Silberman

        Yes, Michael, I was making a facetious comparison to the concurrent debate on cannabis legalization. We regulate tobacco products, and do it pretty well.

  • I agree with this bill. I was puzzled why it didn’t pass last session. I see/know the argument/comparison with alcohol. I wonder if federal $$ was tied to raising the tobacco age like alcohol, this bill would pass.

  • Doug Eisler

    “kids under 21”. Wait a sec. When I was 21, I was expected to be an adult. And in my grandparents generation, graduated high school or not, you were expected to act like an adult when you were around 16 or so. Such pandering does not help people mature. I don’t want to see more people get addicted to harmful substances, but enough is enough with the nanny state.

  • Cheryl Ganley

    So a person who is 18 is mature enough to vote, join the military, live on their own, enter into a binding contract ect… but they are not mature enough to decide to smoke or not?