A recent study released by the Institute of Medicine suggests that raising the minimum legal age for purchasing tobacco products to 21 could prevent, or at least delay, tobacco use and reduce the risk for later addiction in young people. The report states that if an increased minimum purchase age was implemented today, there would be a 12 percent reduction in tobacco usage by 2100. This figure should not be ignored. Moving to increase the age at which individuals can legally purchase tobacco has significant potential benefits, but can’t be the only step taken. The government should consider increasing programs that aid smokers in quitting and potentially increase taxation on tobacco products.
According to the Surgeon General, nearly 90 percent of adult daily smokers have their first cigarette by age 18 and 99 percent have theirs by age 26. Those most impacted by raising the minimum age would be teenagers aged 15 to 17.
If the legal minimum age to purchase tobacco were 21, it would limit the ability of high school students to obtain tobacco products themselves or ask siblings or other family members to get these products for them. Making tobacco products less accessible to younger populations will reduce the number of individuals who will become addicted to tobacco products later on in life. Moreover, increasing the tobacco purchasing age would further stigmatize the product, making younger individuals less likely to start using it.
That said, a law to raise the minimum age for purchasing tobacco products must be implemented correctly. The 18-to-21-year-old population should be grandfathered in, which would avoid the issue of forcing these young people to try and find other ways of acquiring tobacco products or quit cold turkey. While the grandfather clause would not be intended to promote the continuation of smoking habits, it would be a way to help those quit under smoother and probably safer circumstances.
Additionally, there are other issues that raising the legal tobacco purchasing age does not address. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2011, 68.9 percent of adult smokers wanted to stop smoking and 42.7 percent had made an attempt to quit in the past year, meaning they stopped smoking for at least one day in an attempt to quit. Clearly, raising the age limit is not the only solution. Improving the availability of resources to help people quit smoking is also vitally important.
Given that several studies have found that higher taxes on tobacco products would effectively reduce smoking habits, especially with young people and low-income populations, it should also be highly considered as a solution. For example, a 10-percent increase in tobacco prices would lead to a five- to 15-percent decrease in smoking in people ages 18 and under. Since people of lower socioeconomic status account for a larger percentage of those who use tobacco products, and studies show that lower income people are more responsive to higher prices, a tax would likely have a significant impact on a large portion of the tobacco-using population.
Along with measures that must be taken to reduce the overall percentage of people who smoke, increasing the minimum legal tobacco purchasing age presents significant upsides. Decreasing the availability of tobacco products to youths would increase the stigma attached to the use of these products and further serve to decrease rates of consumption. However crucial, this is just the beginning of a conversation on the culture of tobacco use in the United States. Tobacco use is intricately linked with other factors, such as stress and socioeconomic status. Therefore, if we, as a society, are serious about eradicating tobacco use, then ideas to reduce poverty and improve mental health treatment must also be addressed.