Editorial: Should the age to buy cigarettes be 21?

Last modified: Wednesday, December 04, 2013
Should New Hampshire raise the legal age to buy cigarettes from 18 to 21?

A better question: Should the federal government encourage all 50 states to do so?

This is not just an idle question, for the Obama administration is actually facing a 2014 deadline to make a recommendation, one way or the other, to Congress – part of a 2009 law called the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act. So far, the expert panel that’s supposed to be convened to ponder the issue at the federal level has yet to be created. But in the meantime, states and municipalities across the country have taken up the issue on their own, eager to further the progress made in the past several decades in protecting young people from the health risks associated with smoking.

Most significant, of course, was New York City. In one of his final acts as mayor, Michael Bloomberg last month signed legislation raising the minimum legal cigarette sales age from 18 to 21; it takes effect in six months. The Washington, D.C., council is considering a similar bill. Hawaii, Utah, Colorado, Texas and New Jersey are considering statewide efforts.

Closer to home, the Newburyport, Mass., Board of Health has proposed increasing the cigarette-buying age to 21 – and the mayor there has vowed to block such a change.

In fact, it was in Massachusetts that this effort first took hold. Needham, Mass., raised the age to 21 back in 2005 and, since then, the community has reported a dramatic local decline in smoking.

There are numerous good arguments to raise the age:

∎ Not only would it be harder for young people to get cigarettes on their own, but it would also make it more difficult for underage smokers to find willing friends to buy smokes for them. (Younger teens typically know a lot more 18-year-olds than 21-year-olds who might buy them cigarettes.)

∎ The period between 18 and 21 is when many Americans first start smoking; raising the age would make it tougher to take up the habit. According to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, about 50 percent of smokers begin using cigarettes daily before they turn 18 and more than 75 percent of adult smokers do so before they turn 21.

∎ There’s a logic to making the smoking and drinking ages align.

∎ The longer people wait to try their first cigarette, the less likely they are to become hooked.

It’s hard to imagine New Hampshire officials – or those in other states equally dependent on the tax revenue from cheap smokes – shrinking the pool of eligible buyers on their own. And a patchwork of laws – town by town, or state by state – will only exacerbate the sort of border wars that already exist where price differentials are significant. (In New Hampshire, for instance, the tax is just $1.78 per pack; in Massachusetts, it’s $3.51.)

The issue is best decided by the feds, who successfully convinced all the states to raise their drinking ages to 21 with a threat of loss of federal aid. A similar scheme would no doubt work for smoking too.

Would there be significant public health benefits to raising the age? That’s the question Obama’s panel is supposed to answer by next year. Hard to imagine the answer would be anything but positive. And if that’s the case, Congress should surely take up the cause.