Congratulations on your 18th birthday, you can now enlist in the army and possibly die for your country…but you’ll have to wait another few years to buy a six-pack of beer, and as of recently, a pack of cigarettes.
For many, this is another demonstration of how newly-minted adults are illogically limited in their privileges. They can enlist in the army, vote, and get married at 18, yet cannot purchase alcohol until 21.
Recently, California decided to raise the tobacco purchasing age to 21. Although this can be viewed as an infringement of an adult’s right to make free decisions, it is actually a good law according to researchers. Raising the smoking age to 21 is beneficial and should be considered by states other than California in order to reduce smoking rates and improve health outcomes over time.
Positive outcomes, including decreased teen smoking rates and a healthier environment, are expected in California. The most important aspect of this law is that it would lead to improved long-term health outcomes due to fewer teens starting and carrying the habit into adulthood.
Teenagers have been known to be particularly vulnerable to advertising campaigns by tobacco companies. Raising the smoking age to 21 will make it difficult for these companies to target this demographic.
Raising the smoking age is an appropriate way of reducing the leverage that tobacco companies have over teenagers. Most smokers begin smoking in their mid to late teens, and restricting this age group from purchasing tobacco products would lead to a 12% decrease in the prevalence of adult tobacco use according to the Institute of Medicine.
This legislation will not solve the problem, just as raising the drinking age to 21 in 1984 did not eliminate underage alcohol abuse and intoxicated driving. It is clear that underage DUI’s still occur and current college campuses are filled with underage students drinking, but the alcohol problem was much more serious prior to 1984 according to IIHS data. Increasing the tobacco smoking age to 21 is similar to the 1984 legislation raising the drinking age, and is an appropriate step towards having a smoke-free environment in the future.
California is not the first state to pass such a law, as Hawaii was the first to pass this legislation last year. According to the Denver Post, Hawaii is beginning full enforcement of the new tobacco restrictions, with fines of up to $50 for offenders. Hawaii’s actions have been praised by the local military and naval bases as a benefit to the soldiers, both financially and health-wise. According to the Marine Corps Times, some soldiers spend over $4,000 annually on their smoking habit, and some of them are under 21 years old. Although this legislation seems like a restriction of freedom, it is actually giving teens the freedom of starting adulthood addiction free and not spending a portion of their income on a harmful product.
If similar legislation is adopted in other states, public health outcomes and life expectancy of future generations will improve as less teenagers pick up this dangerous habit. In general, further smoking restrictions contribute to important advances in public health outcomes. Smoking and secondhand smoke are associated with lung cancer, emphysema, childbirth defects, and a reduced life expectancy.
According to the Institute of Medicine, there will be over 200,000 lives saved from an early death over the course of a few decades with the passing of this law in California.
The passing of this law is important because it restricts the ability of the older teenage demographic to purchase cigarettes. Most smokers begin smoking in their mid to late teens, so less access to tobacco products will lead to less adult smokers in the future. Critics of this law argue that it restricts an 18-year-old adult’s freedom, but all age restrictions are arbitrary in nature, and should be subjected to revisions based on evidence that doing so would provide the maximum benefit to society. Once again, congratulations on your 18th birthday, we’ve delayed your right to buy a highly addictive product for another few years, but I do believe that you’ll come to appreciate that one day.
Jonathan Gevorkian is a fourth year public health sciences major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.