How old should you be to purchase tobacco?

Some legislative leaders in the United States apparently think 18 is too young.

On Friday, Hawaii's governor signed a bill raising the minimum age to buy tobacco to 21. The law takes effect next year.

Four states — Alabama, Alaska, New Jersey, and Utah — have raised the minimum age to buy tobacco to 19, while some local municipalities have raised it to 21.

And, earlier this month, the California State Senate overwhelmingly voted to increase the age at which a person can buy tobacco products from 18 to 21. The bill still needs Assembly approval and the governor’s signature.

teen breaking cigarette in half

The goal is to further limit access to tobacco products to young smokers. The move is backed by several health groups, including the American Cancer Society and the California Medical Association.

Dr. Jack Jacoub, an oncologist and director of thoracic oncology at the Memorial Care Cancer Institute at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California, says with decades of data available, it’s clear the age increase is a sound move to prevent people from starting lifelong habits.

“It’s still a risk factor for a host of different cancers, not just lung cancer,” he said. “If you separate the legal aspect of it, it makes the most sense to raise the minimum age to 21.”

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A Measure Aimed at Delaying the Start

A study by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) published in March found that increasing the minimum legal age to 21 would likely prevent or delay when people would begin smoking, specifically children aged 15 to 17.

About 90 percent of smokers now start before 19 years old, so the argument is the 21-year minimum would reduce teens’ access to tobacco because it’s unlikely they would be in the same social circle as people old enough to purchase tobacco.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t have the authority to raise the legal smoking age to 21, so it’s an issue that must be dealt with at the state level. The federal government, however, does have a law that withholds federal highway funds to states that don’t have their minimum drinking age at 21.

The town of Needham, Massachusetts, raised its smoking age to 21 in 2005. Over the next decade, teenage rates of smoking dropped from 13 to 7 percent, according to the Education Development Center, which conducted the study.

In California, smoking has been banned in enclosed workspaces since 1995, and smoking in a vehicle with a minor has been illegal since 2008. This was done to prevent exposure to secondhand smoke, but the new proposed law would affect young smokers directly.

“The group where smokers usually start is the highest impact group,” Jacoub said. “I don’t know of anyone who would be against it.”

A handful of trade groups, such as the Cigar Association of America and the California Retailers Association, oppose the change on the grounds that Americans are considered adults under the eyes of the law, so that’s also when they should have the right to make their own decisions.

Personal choice is the crux of the argument the tobacco industry uses when opposing stricter legislation.

This new legislation has lit up an ongoing debate over when a person is considered a legal adult and what that entails.

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When Are Americans Adults?

When the federal drinking age was pushed back from 18 to 21 in 1984, it was backed by health concerns, mainly the high rate at which minors were being killed in traffic accidents while under the influence.

Research shows the parts of the brain most responsible for decision-making, impulse control, sensation seeking, and susceptibility to peer pressure are still developing and changing between the ages of 18 and 21. The IOM study notes, “Adolescent brains are uniquely vulnerable to the effects of nicotine.”

Jamie Miller, a political consultant and e-cigarette lobbyist from Florida, likened the California legislation to the change in voting age in 1971 when young men were being drafted to serve in Vietnam.

The thought was that men and women old enough to serve in the armed forces should be able to vote for the people who decide to go to war.

“We’re looking at the unintended consequences of passing laws under public pressure at the moment. I personally believe we, as a society, made a mistake when we changed the Constitution to allow those who are 18 to vote just so we could draft those who are 18,” he said.

Saying he believes the fewer people who have access to addictive substances the better, Miller also says there needs to be some kind of uniformity to when young people are considered adults.

“If the age to drink and smoke is 21, we should change the draft and voting age to 21 as well,” he said. “In other words, full, legal adulthood would be 21.”

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