Is a tobacco-free future on the horizon?

Connor Nikolic

Public officials have been working to curtail smoking and smoking-related deaths for several decades. Cigarette taxes have caused prices to triple in the past 20 years; tobacco companies can no longer sponsor sporting events; and their internal documents are now publically available.

Thanks to these and other legal changes, the adult smoking rate has dropped to 18 percent, about half as many as were reported only 30 years ago. The percentage of young adults, ages 18 to 29, who smoke has dropped by 9 percent since 2001.

Acting Surgeon General Boris Lushniak has even greater expectations going forward. He recently said virtually eliminating smoking is an entirely realistic goal with our current state of public health. While I doubt the odds of having absolutely no smokers in the near future, I do believe that as few as 10 percent of adults will be smoking in 20 years. As long as the number of new smokers continues to decrease, the day will come eventually when tobacco use is no longer related to the deaths of one in five Americans.

CVS Caremark’s decision to stop selling tobacco products in its pharmacies by this October is a step in the right direction. Other pharmaceutical companies will likely follow suit with industry pressure. While most smokers purchase cigarettes in convenience stores, not drugstores, it’s a start.

As virtuous as CVS’ efforts may be, we must also consider how to prevent future generations from smoking.

Impose a birth-year ban

One option for legislators to bring an eventual end to the tobacco industry would be imposing a ban on sales to individuals born after a certain year. This would prevent future generations from picking up smoking, without forcing those reliant on the drug to quit. The legislation would likely face extreme scrutiny, but it isn’t unheard of.  Australian lawmakers considered a similar ban in 2012 for people born after 2000.

Market a safer alternative

The Food and Drug Administration has not stated if alternatives like electronic cigarettes are safe to use, and it has not given guidelines on how to regulate them. If the FDA finds e-cigs to be safer and non-cancerous, then they could be a viable alternative. However, the fate of e-cigs is unclear as cities nationwide move to ban them, including New York City last month. 

Marijuana, which is now more popular than cigarettes among teens, is another option. Among University of Minnesota students, current marijuana and tobacco rates are comparable at about 13 and 15 percent, respectively, according to a 2013 Boynton Health Service College Student Health Survey report.

The Minnesota Legislature will consider marijuana for medicinal purposes later this year. The drug is hitting its political forte with recent legalization in a number of states, which may just be the tip of the iceberg.

If and when marijuana becomes fully legal, it could also present a less dangerous option to cigarettes. However, while marijuana has medicinal effects, studies have found cancer-causing substances in the drug.

While we need more research to find safer alternatives, we know that tobacco use continues to kill hundreds of thousands of Americans every year.

By stopping the harm at the source, we can save future Americans from becoming a part of these statistics.