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Foss: Raising the age unlikely to curb teen smoking

Foss: Raising the age unlikely to curb teen smoking

Foss: Raising the age unlikely to curb teen smoking
Photographer: SHUTTERSTOCK

It sounds promising. 

But will raising the age for purchasing tobacco products and e-cigarettes from 18 to 21 actually do what it's intended to do -- reduce teen smoking? 

We won't know the answer to this question until after the state's new law barring tobacco sales to people under the age of 21 has been in effect for a little while. 

But there are good reasons to think that it won't have the desired impact -- or much of an impact at all. 

Here's why: Most smokers take up the habit before the age of 18. 

And if that's the case, why would we expect raising the age at which one can buy tobacco and e-cigarettes to 21 to make much of a difference? 

We have plenty of real-world evidence indicating that teens who wish to smoke or vape will find a way to do so even if they're too young to purchase tobacco or e-cigarettes legally. 

Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that 90 percent of smokers have tried cigarettes by age 18. 

In New York, about 35,000 high school students smoke, and the average age at which they smoked a cigarette for the first time was 13, according to the state Department of Health. 

Even if raising the age to buy cigarettes and tobacco were sound public policy, I would still have qualms about the state's new raise-the-age law. 

Reducing the teen smoking rate is a worthy goal, but it doesn't justify making it illegal for young adults to buy tobacco products and e-cigarettes.

If we're going to chip away at the rights of people who can vote, enlist in the military, marry and sign legal contracts, we should have a very good reason for doing so. 

And this is not a very good reason, in part because there's no evidence that it will be effective. 

A 2018 study examining the impact of New York City's raise the age law, which went into effect in 2013, found that restricting the purchase of tobacco products and e-cigarettes to those over the age of 21 "did not accelerate reductions in youth any more rapidly than declines observed in comparison sites." 

The study, which was published in the American Journal of Public Health, doesn't go so far as to suggest that raising the minimum sale age to 21 is ineffective -- only that more research is needed to determine whether raise-the-age policies will significantly reduce the youth smoking rate. 

Which might be true, but the study's findings undercut the bold claims made by proponents of raising the age, that it will lead to a big decline in youth smoking and eventually save lives. 

Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Group, supports measures that reduce smoking and has worked for the American Cancer Society of NY & NJ in the past. 

But he's not a fan of the state's new anti-smoking legislation, which he feels will do little to address the problem of youth smoking. 

"We don't think it's right to discriminate against 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds, and we certainly don't think it's right when there's proof (that raising the age) doesn't work," Horner said.

Far more effective, he said, would be to invest more in state tobacco control programs that have seen their funding cut in recent years. The state "spends a pittance on tobacco programs," Horner said. 

We already know how to reduce teen smoking, and it doesn't entail passing strict new laws that those intent on obtaining cigarettes are unlikely to heed. 

It entails education and outreach -- teaching people about the dangers of smoking, and giving them the tools to quit. 

Other than giving lawmakers the opportunity to pat themselves on the back, the state's new raise-the-age law will do little to move the needle on teen smoking. It appears to take a bold step toward addressing a problem, but its real-world impact is unlikely to extend beyond making people feel good. 

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper's.

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