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The Debate Over Raising the Legal Age on Tobacco Products

MINNEAPOLIS — Yesterday, two Massachusetts state legislative committees held hearings on bills to raise the state’s minimum age to purchase and use tobacco products from 18 years old to 21 years old. This focus on a statewide legal age of 21 in Massachusetts follows recent news from Hawaii, which became the first state to enact an age 21 law on tobacco products.

While Alabama, Alaska, New Jersey and Utah already have laws setting the legal age to buy and use tobacco at 19 years old, other states with legal age bills still pending include California (age 21), Massachusetts (age 21), New Jersey (age 21), New York (age 21), Vermont (age 21) and Washington (age 19). Several other states had legal age bills fail due to adjournment of the legislature including Iowa (age 19), Oregon (age 21), Rhode Island (age 21), Texas (age 19) and Utah (age 21).

When a legislative bill is proposed to raise the legal age to purchase and use tobacco products, the rationale tends to focus on the public health. However, a convincing argument can be made that personal liberties of all adults need to be considered when this kind of legislation is being debated. Personal rights are important because government and society impose responsibilities and duties on those who have reached the age of 18, and the magnitude of these obligations should also allow a person of adult age to choose what legal products they desire to purchase.

Some of these serious responsibilities and duties borne by adults who are 18, 19 and 20 years old include voting, military service, marriage, divorce, payment of income taxes, health insurance mandates, health directive decisions, candidacy for public office, and prosecution as an adult for crimes committed. 

If the proponents of legislation to raise the legal age to buy and use tobacco products truly believe that raising the legal age will reduce underage use of tobacco products, the national minimum age of 21 to purchase and consume alcohol provides an important and analogous situation. 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) conducts two surveys, the National Youth Tobacco Survey and the Youth Risk Behavior Survey.  These two surveys show cigarette smoking nationwide among high school students has decreased significantly from 15.8% in 2011 to 9.2% in 2014 while drinking alcohol among high school students is currently at 34.9%.  In other words, four times as many high school students drink alcohol as opposed to smoke cigarettes even though the legal age to purchase and consume alcohol is 21.  

From this CDC data, a conclusion can be drawn that mandating an age of 21 for the purchase and consumption of alcohol has not created an impediment for more than one-third of minors who are currently consuming alcohol. This brings into question the true efficacy of a similar increase in the age of tobacco and raises the more serious health-related question of whether such a change in age of purchase could actually result in an increase in underage tobacco use as minors, in addition to adults who are 18, 19 and 20 years old, look to other sources for acquiring tobacco products.  

These other sources are known as “social sources” and a study released by the Journal of School Health in August 2014 found that 86% of underage youth obtain cigarettes from non-retail sources, such as older friends, siblings, parents, and strangers. Raising the legal age to 21 may only cause those underage youth and then 18-, 19- and 20-year-old adults to either continue to rely on these social sources or to seek out social sources in order to obtain tobacco products.

When lawmakers consider raising the legal age to buy and use tobacco products, the potential health-related consequences of a higher legal age need to be taken into account and whether such action will have the opposite affect on underage use as the CDC statistics on under age alcohol consumption indicate.

Thomas A. Briant


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