More states raise tobacco buying age to 21
Critics decry hazy predictions
The movement to raise the tobacco buying age to 21 has caught fire, with recent victories in three states as anti-smoking advocates blow past critics who see the measures as another dubious undertaking of the nanny state.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, signed legislation Wednesday making her state the fifth to increase the legal age for cigarette and vaping purchases from 18 to 21. A Maine bill became law last week after the Legislature overrode a veto by Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican.
Mr. LePage was steamed. He fired off a letter Tuesday calling legislators hypocrites for forbidding 18-year-olds to buy tobacco even though they fight in wars and must be tried as adults in court.
He said he agreed that “smoking is dangerous to a person’s health, and I would never encourage anyone of any age to smoke cigarettes,” but he added that the new law “attempts to ‘social engineer’ legal behavior by adults who want to use a legal product that you don’t like.”
“If you don’t believe that 18-year-olds are adults who can make their own decisions, then I hope you will support legislation that increases the voting age to 21 and prevents military service until a person turns 21,” said Mr. LePage.
Such concerns have dogged but failed to derail the Tobacco21 campaign, launched in 2013 by Counter Tobacco, a 6-yearold anti-smoking organization
focused on reducing tobacco product purchases at the point of sale.
Hawaii became the first state to raise the minimum legal sales age for tobacco products in June 2015, followed by California in May 2016. More than 250 localities, including New York City in October 2013, also have raised the legal age.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, vetoed the legislation when it hit his desk in January 2016, but he changed his mind this year and signed a bill on July 21 that raised the state’s age for buying cigarettes and electronic smoking devices from 19 to 21.
“My mother died from the effects of smoking, and no one should lose their life due to any addictive substance,” Mr. Christie said in a statement. “Additionally, the less people who develop costly tobacco habits that can cause health problems, such as lung cancer, heart disease and developmental issues, the less strain there will be on our health care system.”
Tobacco21 has argued that raising the age will result in fewer smokers. It points to a federal survey showing that more than 80 percent of adult smokers had their first cigarette before age 18 and almost 95 said they started smoking before age 21.
The group, which receives funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said high school smoking decreased by 47 percent in Needham, Massachusetts, after the town raised the minimum legal sales age to 21.
Critics of the measures point out that teen smoking rates are already declining. A CDC report says rates of teen smoking dropped by 15.8 percent from 2011 to 2016 and vaping rates dropped for the first time last year.
A 2015 Institute of Medicine study found that the Needham example had no baseline data and that there are “no published data on these outcomes,” according to Reason.org.
Advocates of raising the legal sales age point to long-term cost savings on health care from having fewer adult smokers, but fiscal forecasts for Maine, New Jersey and Oregon estimate that the budgets will lose millions of dollars in the short run because they will have less tax revenue from tobacco sales.
“[C]loser scrutiny suggests that these promises are speculative at best — and that the immediate fiscal consequences of the change will put more strain, not less, on budgets,” Christian Britschgi, assistant editor at Reason, said in a July 25 analysis.
Researchers at the Cato Institute and the Democracy Institute argued during the 2013 New York City debate that none of the evidence on why teens take up smoking related to the legal buying age.
They cited a groundbreaking 1992 British study, “Why Children Start Smoking Cigarettes,” that listed factors such as peer pressure, having parents or siblings who smoke, living with a single parent, and dropping out of school by 16.
The researchers said most teen smokers “experiment with single cigarettes, not packaged cigarettes. They become smokers long before they ever buy a pack. A teen’s first purchase decision isn’t about becoming a smoker, but rather about which brand to smoke.”
Similar bills introduced this year in 10 states either were defeated or died before the end of the legislative session, according to the National Association of Tobacco Outlets.
Oregon House Rep. Cedric Hayden, a Republican, said in a statement that he voted against raising the tobacco purchasing age over a host of concerns, including doubts about the measure’s efficacy, cutbacks to state programs from the loss of excise tax revenue and the hit to jobs from small businesses forced to lay off workers younger than 21.
The focus should be on education, not “punitive citation,” said Mr. Hayden, a dentist.
Under the Oregon law, which takes effect Jan. 1, fines will be levied against vendors, not buyers, starting at $50 and climbing to $1,000 after multiple offenses.
State Rep. Paul Davis, the Maine Republican who sponsored the tobacco bill, wasn’t convinced by the governor’s argument about 18-year-olds being able to serve in the military but not being able to buy cigarettes.
“People who join the military don’t have 15-year-old kids following them around and being impressed by their actions,” Mr. Davis told WTMW-TV. “It’s about the availability of cigarettes in schools.”
Hawaii became the first state to raise the minimum legal sales age for tobacco products in June 2015, followed by California in May 2016.