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Raising tobacco-buying age to 21 was a wise decision

Kandy Childress • Jan 9, 2020 at 6:30 PM

The minimum age to purchase cigarettes, e-cigarettes, and other tobacco products was raised to 21 by the U.S. government in late December 2019.

Among people who smoked cigarettes daily, 87% first used a cigarette by age 18. The American Lung Association, in a statement to Time magazine, called raising the age an “easy way to protect children’s health and prevent future generations from getting hooked on nicotine.”

The new law was supported by several unlikely constituents, including Altria Group Inc. and Reynolds American Inc. — the two biggest U.S. cigarette manufacturers. Juul Labs Inc. — the startup that has been blamed by health officials for the rise in youth e-cigarette use — also supported raising the age restriction from 18 to 21 years of age.

Twenty states already had laws in place that prohibited anyone under 21 from purchasing tobacco products. California, Texas, and New York — three of the most populous states — were part of the contingent that led laggard states, such as Tennessee and other Southern states, that have been casually and unproductively debating the issue for several years.

The link between e-cigarettes and traditional cigarettes

Many public health experts — including the prestigious Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) — understand the indisputable link between e-cigarettes and traditional cigarettes. In fact, NAS recently issued a comprehensive report on e-cigarettes that labels them as a gateway to traditional cigarette use among America’s youth.

Specifically, the NAS report found that high schoolers were six times more likely to start smoking regular cigarettes if they had a history of vaping than if they did not. The link between vaping and later smoking was particularly strong in students who said they had “no intention of smoking” when they were first interviewed.

It’s no wonder that the global e-cigarette market reached nearly $10 billion in 2018 and is expected to grow to $86.3 billion by 2025. Much of this growth is attributed to tweens and teens taking up the habit. Recently, more than 3 million middle schoolers (tweens) and high school students indicated they regularly vape, according to the 2018 National Youth Tobacco Survey.

What makes vaping so attractive to youth? Young adults reported using e-cigarettes mainly because they believed them to be less harmful or toxic than regular cigarettes. Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has been one of the most relentless and outspoken critics of this idea.

Since 2013, Dr. Frieden has warned that e-cigarettes — despite their innocuous image and candy-flavored offerings — can easily get teens hooked on nicotine. Nicotine is a highly addictive drug that has been proven to damage normal brain development, resulting in lifelong health issues.

Raising the age for tobacco product purchases to 21 is intended to address what many are calling a health epidemic among America’s youth. The American Lung Association, NAS, CDC, and other public health experts believe the new age limit gets us one step closer to combatting our nation’s No. 1 preventable cause of death.

Kandy Childress can be reached at kandy.childress@gmail.com.