Raising the Smoking Age to 21 Is Pointless

Lawmakers across the country are jumping on the bandwagon to raise the minimum age for smokers, but the odds are that these won't do much to keep kids from lighting up.

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Lawmakers across the country are jumping on the bandwagon to raise the minimum age for smokers, but the odds are that these won't do much to keep kids from lighting up.

Last week, Utah legislators agreed to put a bill on ballots next year that would make 21 the minimum age for buying tobacco products, a raise from its current limit of 19 years, which is already the highest age in the U.S. That plan comes fresh off the passage of New York City's recent rule to raise its minimum age to 21, and similar age-raise plans are soon hitting legislators in Hawaii, New Jersey, Colorado, and Texas.

The underlying reason behind this growing trend is admirable — smoking is bad, duh — but raising the smoking age to 21 would actually make less of an impact than officials think. That's because smoking rates are already coming down, and smokers start way before age 21 anyway.

Smoking is already trending down

Prior to this trend of raising the age to 21, the smoking rate was already decreasing these past few years, as the CDC graph (pdf) to the right shows. Last year, 18 percent of Americans smoked, down from about 21 percent in 2009, and almost 25 percent in 1997. This decline isn't due to age raises, but to other smoking laws, including cigarette taxes and smoke-free workplace rules. Similarly, heavy smokers are smoking less, as the CDC reports that those smoking 30 or more cigarettes a day declined significantly from 2005 to 2010. In New York City (where nearly all indoor smoking is banned), the smoking rate sits at 15 percent, down from its 21 percent in 2005. Because of a decreased public visibility and higher cigarette prices, smoking is on the way out. But age limits, which are only now being put in place, have little to do with it.

Smokers start at way younger age

Raising the age from 18 to 21 won't make as big of a difference as lawmakers hope, given that most smokers — nine out of 10 according to the Surgeon General — have already begun lighting up by 18. In Utah, the average age at which a person tries their first cigarette is a pre-pubescent 12.6 years, according to Cameron Mitchell, the executive director of the Utah Association of Local Health Departments. Slate's argument in favor of raising the smoking age cites an old internal memo from tobacco company R.J. Reynolds: "If a man has never smoked by age 18, the odds are three-to-one he never will." But as the stats above show, most smokers have lit up well before age 18, so those extra three years are unlikely to tip the balance.

More laws don't always equal more enforcement

Those numbers above, plus the prevalence of college-age drinkers who have no problem getting their hands on alcohol, suggests that those who want to smoke will have no problem getting their hands on tobacco. This age raise might just make fake IDs and black market cigarettes even more desirable.

Mixed success of raising smoking ages

Utah's and New York City's role model for this change is Needham, Massachusetts, which raised its smoking age to 21 in 2005 and has seen a large drop in smoking compared to the rest of Massachusetts. Needham's director of public health told WNYC that teens smoking declined from 13.5 percent in 2006 to 5.5 percent in 2012. The Boston suburb's success is impressive, but the same health director is willing to emphasize the city's other anti-smoking laws aside from just the age raise. “I wouldn’t say it’s all because of this,” she told WNYC. “But I think the community has embraced this.” However, Needham's success story hasn't been seen in other age-raising initiatives. Alabama and Alaska raised their minimums to 19 recently, but neither has seen much of a difference yet in their above-average smoking rates.

Utah has few smokers to be angry

Utah is the state least in need of a change in its smoking laws. It already has the lowest rate of smoking in the country; just 9.1% in 2010 according to the Centers for Disease Control. A Gallup poll in 2011, too, put Utah's lowest smoking rate at 11 percent, well below the U.S. average of 21 percent. Because of those small numbers, there likely won't be much opposition to the ballot vote next year. But that can't be said of other states with higher smoking rates, particularly those with a libertarian bent. Consider Kentucky and its 29 percent smoking rate (Gallup) or West Virginia and its 27 percent rate (CDC). Aligning an anti-Big Government campaign with angry young smokers could stop this trend in its tracks.

On top of these reasons, there's also the problem of reconciling a country that can send its 18-year-olds off to war... where they can't smoke or drink. That's a tough sell, no matter that officials have their minds in the right place.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.