Ailts: Raising the tobacco sale age to 21 could have unintended negative consequences

Minnesota lawmakers are too optimistic in their predictions of the effects of a tobacco sale age of 21.

Ellen Ailts

This month, Minnesota lawmakers introduced a bill to raise the state tobacco sale age to 21. Their argument is based on evidence that 95 percent of smokers start before age 21, and would prevent an estimated 30,000 new smokers over the next 15 years. 

While I’m certainly no advocate for smoking, I am wary of lawmakers attempting to restrict what decisions young adults can make about their own lives — especially since their estimation of the bill’s potential effect is highly optimistic. There is almost no systematic research to suggest that an increased tobacco sale age prevents teens from smoking, as the Institute of Medicine recognized in a 2015 report and senior researcher for San Francisco’s Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice Mike Males pointed out in a LA Times op-ed

An increased tobacco sale age might actually have the opposite of its intended effect. In the 1990s, three Massachusetts communities banned under-age tobacco sales, as Males wrote. A two-year study showed that there was no effect on the accessibility of cigarettes to teens in the area, and no reduction in smoking rates. In fact, smoking actually increased in comparison to nearby communities who didn’t enforce the ban. 

There have been similar trends on a national scale. Youth smoking was on a decline from the late ‘70s to the early ‘90s — until 1992, when Congress passed a law mandating a legal smoking age of 18. The decline ended over the next six years, until youth smoking mostly leveled off. 

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 9 out of 10 smokers first tried smoking by the age of 18. Surveys show that most underage smokers get their cigarettes from friends. If someone under 18 — and, it logically follows, under 21 — wants to smoke, a tobacco sale age largely isn’t stopping them. And since transgressions are difficult to detect and enforce, the supposed efficacy of this law again comes under question. In fact, 99 percent of smokers first tried smoking by age 26, so, hey, why not just raise the tobacco sale age to 26?

The argument is that 21 is the age at which the portion of the brain responsible for rational decision-making is more developed — but if that’s so, why are 18- to 21-year-olds tried as adults in courts of law, if their abilities of rational decision-making are so hindered? If you are deemed “adult” enough to make the decision to buy a house or die for your country, you should be able to make the decision about whether you want to smoke.

Passing this bill into law will penalize smokers who are 18-21 and are already addicted. 2016 saw a surge in fake ID cases on the University of Minnesota’s campus, and a tobacco sale age of 21 certainly wouldn’t help in curtailing the issue. If the law was passed, lawmakers have said the penalty for using a fake ID would be reduced to a petty misdemeanor — still, these are public record and part of your criminal record, and can still show up on some background checks. By enforcing a tobacco sale age of 21, we might see an increase in college-aged students across our state being punished for using fake IDs to purchase tobacco. 

There are other, more effective measures that should be taken to reduce and prevent youth smoking, like increased taxes on tobacco products, prevention of indoor smoking, anti-tobacco school programs and the reduction of tobacco advertising. A tobacco sale age of 21 simply isn’t the answer. Adults should be granted the freedom of individual choice, and that also means accepting the responsibility for those choices.