Under 21 Tobacco Prohibition: Solution Or Desperate Grasp?

If Al Capone taught us anything, it’s that prohibition isn’t effective. But that’s not stopping city governments from upping the minimum smoking age to 21 from 18. The idea is that increasing the minimum age will prevent tobacco addiction that tends to set in during the teen years. The federal government has dragged its heels on the issue, so cities are taking the matter into their own hands. San Francisco and Chicago are the latest cities to try to curb tobacco use through lawmaking, but will it work?

Earlier this month, BuzzFeed reported that San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors unanimously agreed to increase the minimum age to buy tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, to 21 years old. It’s a nice idea, but what’s going to stop people younger than 21 from getting their hands on tobacco? It’s not like they never drink alcohol, despite the fact that they can’t legally purchase it until they’re 21 either. We’ll get to that in a minute.

Experts cite a 2015 report from the Institute of Medicine that found 15- to 17-year-olds are especially susceptible to tobacco addiction. This susceptibility has been attributed to the fact that their brains are still developing. The American Academy of Pediatrics also issued a statement last year that urged the federal government to raise the minimum smoking age.

“Tobacco dependence is not simply a bad habit; it is often a severe addiction. Nicotine causes changes to brain structure and chemistry such that it is difficult to feel normal without it,” wrote the authors. Indeed, even when used exactly as it “should” be used, tobacco causes cancer and a host of other debilitating diseases.

Teens are rarely bothered by facts like “smoking causes cancer” and “you could die,” because they have the somewhat enviable idea that they’re going to live forever. There’s also the thought that they can smoke now and quit when they get a little older without inflicting long-term damage. We know this isn’t the case — addiction is often lifelong — and San Francisco isn’t the only local government that’s getting involved.

Just days after San Francisco’s decision, Chicago followed suit, raising the minimum smoking age to 21 and banning chewing tobacco at sports arenas. Last year, Hawaii became the first state to increase the minimum age; the law took effect on January 1, 2016. Boston and New York City also now require people to be 21 or older to purchase tobacco, and it’s likely we’ll see more cities raising that minimum age.

burning cigarette with smokeWill it be effective? Probably not. While there’s no arguing that the government needs to catch up to the popularity of vaping and the prevalence of tobacco use among young adults, there’s still ample opportunity for those under 21 to acquire tobacco legally. In the case of San Francisco, for example, an 18-year-old can simply go outside city limits to legally purchase cigarettes, e-cigs or snuff. The minimum remains at 18 for the rest of the state. Not to mention the fact that they can pay someone 21 or older to pick up a pack a cigarettes when they buy them a six-pack.

While the Institute of Medicine found that “90 percent of daily smokers first tried cigarettes before the age of 19,” it’s questionable that these new laws will do the trick. Clamping down on a behavior is rarely effective: How many 16-year-olds smoke and how many 19-year-olds drink alcohol? It’s also unreasonable to expect that local law enforcement check the IDs of every smoker they encounter and suspect are underage.

But, in light of the popularity of vaping and the fact that tobacco education seems to have reached its maximum effectiveness without ending all teen smoking, it might be the best answer we have right now.

This story makes us curious: If you are or were a tobacco user, how old were you when you started? Were you able to quit? 

—Megan Winkler

Megan Winkler is an author, historian, Neurosculpting® meditation coach, certified nutritional consultant and DIY diva. When she’s not writing or teaching a class, Megan can be found in the water, on a yoga mat, learning a new instrument or singing karaoke. Her passion for a healthy mind-body-spirit relationship motivates her to explore all the natural world has to offer.



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