One of the strongest arguments in favor of raising the legal age for tobacco purchases inadvertently comes from the tobacco industry itself. In 1986, in a confidential memo, an executive for Philip Morris wrote, “Raising the legal minimum age for cigarette purchase to 21 could gut our key young-adult market (17-20).”
It’s no secret that tobacco companies target young smokers, with the understanding that young smokers are likely to become lifelong smokers. Because of that, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson is backing legislative efforts to raise the age for the purchase and use of tobacco in the state from 18 to 21. Such a change would mirror the minimum age for alcohol and marijuana and would make Washington the first state to implement a minimum age of 21 for tobacco use.
Certain municipalities across the country already have raised their smoking age to 21. In 2005, Needham, Mass., was the first to do so, and by 2012 the city’s high-school-age smoking rate had dropped by 50 percent. Results like that are inarguably positive and would be a boon to Washington. “For me, it’s really about helping these kids not have a lifetime of addiction, because that’s what they face,” said state Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, the lead House sponsor of a bill to raise the minimum age.
The dangers of smoking — and other tobacco use — are well-documented. Nicotine is highly addictive, and long-term use can be costly to both an addict’s pocketbook and health. According to the Centers for Disease Control, “Smokers are more likely than nonsmokers to develop heart disease, stroke and lung cancer.” For both coronary disease and stroke, the risks are 2 to 4 times that of nonsmokers. In addition, smoking increases the risk of bronchitis and emphysema nearly tenfold.
The list goes on and on, as smoking has been demonstrated to deliver a vast swath of health problems. We’re guessing that most adults are aware of that, but getting young adults to fully understand the risks and make an informed decision is difficult. At that age, the notions of death and long-term health problems often are impossible to fathom.
The argument against raising the minimum age for smoking typically leans toward the issue of individual freedom and points out that if an 18-year-old can go to war, then they are old enough to make a choice about smoking. There is some validity to that assertion, but the comparison doesn’t hold up. The fact is that people should not smoke, and there are mountains of evidence to support that conclusion. If society can take a step to reduce the incidence of smoking in young adults, at an age when most of us are prone to making questionable decisions, then society should do exactly that. Micah Berman, a professor of public health at Ohio State University, wrote in 2013, “We know that almost no one starts using tobacco after age 21. We know, too, that exposure to nicotine earlier in life — while the brain is still developing — results in stronger levels of addiction and more difficulty quitting.”
Society routinely sets legal age limits upon certain privileges, be it driving or drinking alcohol or smoking marijuana or getting married. It wasn’t until 1984 that, with prodding from the federal government, states adopted a uniform drinking age of 21. The result was a decrease in high-school-age drinking and in drunk-driving fatalities for young drivers. In other words, strong public policy can have positive public effects. Raising the age for tobacco use would be a positive step for all of us; the tobacco industry has admitted as much.