New Jersey missed an opportunity to reduce smoking-related deaths this month when Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a bill that would have made it the second state in the country to require people to be 21 or older to buy cigarettes and tobacco products. A measure to raise the age had passed the New Jersey Assembly on Monday.
Hawaii and more than 100 cities, including Boston, New York, Cleveland and Kansas City (both in Missouri and Kansas), already have raised the age to 21. Chicago is considering a resolution to join them. Maine should do so, too.
Raising the age for buying tobacco products would reduce sales and, hence, state tax collections. However, states are expected to make up for the lost revenue through reduced health care costs.
According to a March report by the Institute of Medicine, about 90 percent of smokers say they began before age 19. Raising the age to 21 would have a significant impact on high school-age smokers and potential smokers because their 18- to 20-year-old peers no longer would be able to legally purchase tobacco for them. In addition, the institute said, the parts of the brain responsible for decision making, impulse control and peer pressure response continue to develop into young adulthood. As a result, fewer people would begin the smoking habit if they could not buy tobacco products until they were 21.
The Institute of Medicine projects that tobacco use would drop by 12 percent with the legal age set at 21. Although it would take years for the full health effects to be known, the institute’s modeling shows the result would be 223,000 fewer premature deaths and 50,000 fewer lung cancer deaths among those born between 2000 and 2019. Collectively, this group also would see a reduction of 4.2 million years of life lost because of smoking-related health problems.
Maine’s teen smoking rate was cut by more than half between the late 1990s and 2007, when it began rising again. It since has dropped again and remains below the national average. Maine’s relatively high cigarette tax rate — $2 per pack, though it hasn’t changed in a decade — and investment in anti-smoking efforts are among the reasons for the comparatively low teen smoking rate.
Opponents of raising the minimum tobacco purchase age argue that revenue, both to those retailers who sell cigarettes and the state and federal governments through tobacco taxes, will be lost and that teens simply will get cigarettes from older friends and relatives.
The drinking age, which was raised to 21 in the 1980s, offers an instructive parallel. After many states lowered their legal drinking age to 18 in the 1960s and ’70s, to coincide with the lowering of the voting age, alcohol was a major factor in 60 percent of all traffic fatalities, according to the National Institute of Health. Two-thirds of traffic deaths between those age 16 to 20 involved alcohol.
A push to raise the age to 21 for all states followed. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan signed a law to withhold federal highway funding from states that didn’t raise the minimum age for alcohol purchases to 21. By the late 1980s, all states had.
Since the early 1980s, the rate of alcohol-related traffic deaths has been cut in half, with the greatest drop among those between the ages of 16 and 20, NIH reports.
There is a bill in the U.S. Senate to raise the tobacco purchase age to 21. Its prospects are uncertain. Instead of wait for Congress, Maine policymakers should be proactive and raise the age here.