A DECADE AGO, the town of Needham earned first-in-the-nation status when it increased the minimum age required to buy tobacco products to 21. By 2010, smoking rates among Needham high schoolers had dropped by nearly half, from 13 to 7 percent. Almost 80 communities in Massachusetts have followed Needham’s lead, and Boston is studying a proposal as well. This summer, Hawaii became the first US state to raise the tobacco purchasing age to 21.
And now, the Massachusetts Legislature is considering following Hawaii, becoming only the second state in the nation to raise the age limit. A statewide approach makes sense; even though it is legal to smoke at 18, lawmakers should enact the 21-year-old limit for purchases.
By putting up even a small barrier for young smokers, the Commonwealth stands to reap measurable public health benefits. Studies show that most smokers get hooked in their teenage years. A recent report from the Institute of Medicine found that 9 out of 10 daily smokers first tried a cigarette before age 19. Indeed, young people between 15 and 17 have a higher risk of addiction because their brains have not yet fully developed.
The measure also makes economic sense. Nationally, tobacco smoking is still the number one cause of preventable disease and death. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nicotine addiction is responsible for more than $300 billion every year in direct health care expenditures and productivity losses.
Unfortunately, there is a downside for retailers. Raising the purchasing age statewide could push more tobacco purchases into neighboring states. But if the results of a higher age limit are even remotely close to what Needham has experienced, the tradeoff would be well worth it. The Commonwealth needs to send a legislative message to combat the marketing tactics of the tobacco industry and continue the ongoing campaign to reduce smoking. The combination of higher awareness and higher taxes per pack is having an impact: The youth smoking rate is down by half, from 30 percent to about 14 percent, since 1999. And the percentage of adults in the state who smoke has also declined. It’s now pegged at about 16 percent, down from 28 percent in 1985.
Momentum is building across the country to raise the purchasing age. According to data compiled by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, as of last month there were at least 100 localities in eight states (including Hawaii) where the minimum age to purchase tobacco products has been raised to 21. Public approval of the measures is strong. The CDC reports that three out of four adults in the United States support raising the legal smoking age to 21.
In the battle for new customers, the industry has many millions to spend: It is estimated that the major tobacco companies in the United States spend close to $10 billion marketing their products each year. Their efforts work. Massachusetts can be a leader in fighting back and keeping more kids from beginning a lifetime of nicotine addiction.