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How Young is Too Young to Buy Cigarettes?

A study suggests that by raising the purchasing age for tobacco, states could drive down smoking rates and boost public health.

Raising the legal age for buying cigarettes wouldn't just postpone teenagers' smoking habits, it would prevent some teens from starting at all, according to a federally funded study from a nonprofit research institute.

Most adults begin smoking when they are young. Almost 90 percent of people who have smoked daily first tried it before they were 19. According to the study from the Institute of Medicine, pushing back the legal age for buying cigarettes could make a significant dent in smoking rates.

Most states allow purchases at age 18, but the study projects a dip in smoking rates if it were raised nationally to 19—and an even larger one should it be set at 21. But the impact drops off when the age is raised to 25, according to the report.

The greatest proportionate reduction would be among 15- to 17-year-olds, according to the report, in part because raising the age to 21 would create a greater age gap between legal tobacco users and teens. Therefore, social circles of smokers and nonsmokers are less likely to overlap.

The Food and Drug Administration contracted with the institution to prepare the report as part of the 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act. That same law, however, blocked the FDA from raising the legal age above 18, instead leaving that decision to the states.

It's unclear how many states will do so. Four states—Alaska, Alabama, New Jersey and Utah—have set it at 19. Some localities—including New York City— have raised the legal age to 21, but no states have done so.

Smoking rates have greatly decreased in recent decades, but 18 percent of adults smoke and there are almost 480,000 smoking-related deaths yearly.

The debate over whether to raise the purchasing age is an old one. While it is widely understood that it can decrease smoking rates, most states opt to leave it at 18 because other adult activities also become permissible then, said Karmen Hanson, a tobacco policy analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures. "It's just one of those adult choice decisions that legislators in some states feel that is on the same level as something like military service," she said.

The FDA received the report a few days ago and is deciding how to present it to Congress.