Our Turn: Raise the tobacco sales age to 21

Published: 11/23/2019 6:00:31 AM

With vaping illnesses surging and recent data showing dramatic increases in youth tobacco use, New Hampshire must prioritize raising the tobacco sales age to 21.

Tobacco 21 laws, now enacted in 18 other states, are part of a comprehensive tobacco control strategy to save thousands of lives each year by preventing youth from accessing tobacco products. Raising the age to 19, recently enacted by the Legislature, is not enough to keep tobacco products out of the hands of our youth.

The New Hampshire-Tobacco 21 Coalition, which consists of the N.H. Medical Society, New Futures, New Hampshire Public Health Association, American Heart Association, N.H. Nurses Association, N.H. Nurse Practitioner Association, Breathe N.H., American Lung Association, American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network and others, recognizes 21 as the evidence-based age proven to support prevention, healthy development, and long-term health and safety.

National data shows that 95% of adult smokers started before turning 21, when adolescent brains are especially susceptible to lifetime nicotine addiction. Recognizing this, vape and tobacco companies target young adults under 21, subjecting our youth to negative brain development impacts, addiction and a wide range of adverse health effects, including cancer, lung disease, heart disease and stroke.

According to Center for Disease Control Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids report, smoke-related diseases kill 1,900 Granite Staters each year. The same report found that smoking directly costs our state $729 million in annual health care expenditures and $506.9 million in smoking-caused productivity losses, among other charges.

Still, New Hampshire’s rate of youth tobacco use remains one of the country’s highest and is continuing to rise. Due in large part to the lack of regulation, relentless tobacco industry marketing toward youth and the ease at which they can access these products, 40% of Granite State youth have tried vaping and nearly 25% report regular use. We know tobacco products are highly addictive, especially for adolescent brains, and delaying the age when youth can purchase will reduce the risk of addiction.

Despite claims by the tobacco industry, we know that youth vaping is not a safer alternative to traditional cigarettes. Vape products are just as addictive and similarly harmful to youth brain development. The current marketing of harmful vape products toward youth hearkens back to the tobacco industry’s cigarette campaigns of the 1950s, and the negative consequences are already being felt in the form of vaping illnesses manifesting in our communities.

For the health and future of the Granite State, it is now as important as ever to protect our youth from vape industry tactics and greed.

We don’t have to look too far into our history to see the impact raising the sales age can have on youth substance use. In 1991, when all states increased their legal drinking age from 18 to 21, total drinking by high school seniors dropped by 38% and binge drinking fell by similar amounts. Daily drinking fell by half and today’s 30-year-old adults drink significantly less than those who grew up with a lower drinking age.

Raising the tobacco purchasing age to 21 will help to keep these products away from our youth and will complement other strategies to reduce deadly tobacco use. Combined with other efforts to increase funding for prevention programs, enhance regulation, licensing and taxation of tobacco products, and prohibit sales of flavored products, Tobacco 21 would go far to improve the health and wellness of New Hampshire.

We are already seeing the public health benefits in the four New Hampshire towns – Dover, Keene, Franklin and Newmarket – that have enacted Tobacco 21 ordinances. Our neighboring states, Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts and Connecticut are among the 18 other states that have already raised the tobacco purchasing age to 21. Many of these communities have seen significant drops in youth smoking rates, including Needham, Mass., where the youth tobacco use rate decreased 48%, and Chicago where youth use decreased 36%.

We cannot let another generation get addicted. It is time for New Hampshire to take this common-sense step and give our youth a chance. Tobacco 21 keeps the Granite State a healthy and safe place to live by protecting Granite State youth.

(Kate Frey, vice president of advocacy at New Futures, and Dr. Daniel Philbin, Northern New England Chapter of American College of Cardiology, are members of the New Hampshire-Tobacco 21 Coalition.)


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