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Laws banning smoking until age 21 work

A pile of partially burned cigarettes and ash.

Aug. 29, 2019—Most adult smokers started young. According to the American Lung Association (ALA), 94% had their first cigarette before age 21. That's why the ALA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and others support raising the minimum age to buy cigarettes to 21.

And a new study finds these "tobacco 21" laws work. Smoking rates among 18- to 20-year-olds drop when cities or other municipalities pass laws requiring a person to be 21 to buy tobacco products.

The trend doesn't hold for 23- to 25-year-olds. That suggests that the reason for the drop among those 18 to 20 is the law itself.

Are states stumbling blocks?

The study looked at neighboring counties with at least one urban center between 2011 and 2016. In areas that were completely covered by tobacco 21 laws, the likelihood of smoking among 18- to 20-year-olds dropped by 3.1 percentage points. In areas, that were partially covered, rates still dropped by 1.2 percentage points. The research suggested the smoking rate may drop even more if the entire state adopted a tobacco 21 law.

Eighteen states and Washington D.C. have already done just that. But 16 states have "preemption" laws prohibiting cities from raising the minimum legal age for tobacco products above that of the state, which is usually 18. According to researchers, over 20% of Americans under 21 live in these states. And they concluded that preemption laws are a major barrier to residents who want to improve the health of their community.

The study was published online in the journal Nicotine & Tobacco Research.

The high cost of smoking

According to CDC, young people who smoke are in danger of serious health problems, including:

  • Nicotine addiction.
  • Reduced lung function and growth.
  • Early heart disease.
  • At the current rates, smoking may end up shortening the lives of an estimated 5.6 million children alive today.

    Besides the toll on health, smoking is expensive. How much is it costing you? Check by using our smoking calculator.

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