Raising the Age to Buy Tobacco: Does It Really Make a Difference?
New York state is one of the most recent to pass a law, known as the Tobacco 21 legislation, that will raise the age from 18 to 21 to legally buy tobacco products – including cigarettes and e-cigs. Research says this strategy could prevent kids from picking up the habit, potentially saving them from a host of health issues later in life. But will it help?
Deborah Ossip, Ph.D., leads the University of Rochester Medical Center’s Smoking Research Program and has studied tobacco use and nicotine for decades. She responds to some common criticisms of raise-the-age legislation.
#1: If you can vote and go to war at age 18, you should be able to buy tobacco products.
The teenage brain is still developing, and most teenagers don’t appreciate the health risks nor the addiction associated with tobacco products. Many young people aren’t aware that vaping products are harmful and as addictive as cigarettes. In fact, one standard Juul pod contains as much nicotine as an entire pack of cigarettes but it’s masked by candy flavorings. Companies have specifically focused on making nicotine in tobacco products (including e-cigarettes) as addictive as possible. So while they lure new users with flavors and a message of “free choice,” the products are designed to addict adolescents so that they cannot easily stop. This is not a choice.
#2: If people want a product badly enough, they’ll find a way to get it, whether it’s legal or not. The new law will not keep products out of the hands of young teens.
If a particular individual wants a product badly enough, it’s true that he or she will find a way to get it. But on a population level, the evidence shows these types of rules and regulations do work to reduce usage by young people. The laws make it harder to get the product and since most teens try their first cigarette well before age 18, some will decide not to take that step. Many 13- to 17-yr-olds will not be able to find someone 21 or older to buy tobacco products for them —but they were more readily able to find 18-year-olds who would make the purchase for them. The harder it is to get the products, the less likely young teens are to start using them.
#3: Evidence is still evolving about the harmful effects of vaping products.
Although e-cigs don’t burn like regular cigarettes and thus don’t have many chemicals present in smoke, e-cigarettes are not safe. They are unregulated, they contain cancer-causing ingredients, and they have been known to blow up, causing injury to hands and faces. Also, the vapors travel deep into the lungs and impact tissue and cells. They cause respiratory problems, are related to chronic lung diseases and heart disease, and are highly addictive. The flavorings mask the chemicals and encourage more vaping. Also, unlike a regular cigarette that eventually finishes, there is no “end” to the nicotine until an entire pod has been vaped; one pod contains the same nicotine as in 20 cigarettes. In fact, earlier this year, the Food & Drug Administration released a warning of seizures associated with e-cig use, mostly among teens and young adults. The likely cause of seizures is a high dose of nicotine. E-cigs and vaping products are designed to promote addiction and increase sales for the manufacturers.
If you would like to quit smoking and need support, resources are available to help. The NYS Smokers’ Quitline is available at 1-866-697-8487. Smokefree.gov also provides many helpful resources to quit. Locally, Wilmot Cancer Institute offers patients and families the Tobacco Dependence Treatment program. URMC’s Center for Community Health & Prevention has a Tobacco Dependence Treatment program to help those in the community who want support to quit smoking.
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