A Look into Tobacco 21

Tobacco 21 is a campaign that aims to reduce youth smoking by raising the minimum legal sales age (MLSA) to purchase tobacco and vapor products to age 21.

It’s a policy based in hopeful speculation, as currently there is no conclusive evidence that Tobacco 21 laws are effective. The policy prohibits tobacco and vapor products sales to adults age 18 – 20, who are otherwise legally allowed to risk their lives in military service, make medical decisions, take out loans, pay taxes, get married, etc. If an 18 year-old commits a crime, they are tried as an adult and can even receive the death penalty. Tobacco 21 defies state ruled Age of Majority, while segregating a specific demographic of adult U.S. citizens and removing their right to freedom of choice and equality.

As with past prohibitive strategies in the U.S., Tobacco 21 has potential to increase use rates through psychological reactance, once the segregated demographic realizes their right to choose has been removed and begin smoking out of protest. As supply and demand changes, this policy is poised to make tobacco more accessible to minors by bolstering a black market for cigarettes in schools. Tobacco 21 is ineffective and unenforceable, as the newly restricted age group turns to neighboring cities, states, and online to purchase tobacco and vapor products.

Tobacco 21 laws prevent adult access to smoke-free vapor products- a proven 95% less harmful alternative to smoking- keeping the 90% of smokers who begin before age 18 tethered to cigarettes for an additional 3 years, causing unnecessary harm to their health. Enacting Tobacco 21 will send 18-20 year-old adults who have already quit smoking via vaping, back to smoking, as cigarettes are far easier to obtain under this policy.

In a recently published National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper titled, “The Effects of E-cigarette Minimum Legal Sale Age Laws on Youth Substance Use “, research supported by the National Institutes of Health concluded that laws banning sales of e-cigarettes to young adults actually pushes youth toward traditional cigarettes. Strict enforcement of these laws is linked to an increase in youth smoking participation of 0.7 to 1.4 percentage points. The study concludes that the unintended consequences of these laws is concerning and may have a negative impact on public health.

Tobacco-control groups intend to funnel newly legal sales age restricted smokers and/or vapers back to low (6-8%) success-rate pharmaceutical nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) products. While these products work for some, they fail the vast majority of smokers, keeping them bouncing back and forth between Big Tobacco’s clutches and Big Pharma’s crutches, resulting in a sense of defeat and hopelessness.

We have found that more smokers are able to regain control over their habit when provided with balanced and accurate information about all cessation and tobacco harm reduction options available. We believe that honesty and transparency in public health is imperative to the long term well being of our communities. We assert that the best way to protect future generations from the harms of tobacco, is to begin with the adults in their lives. Therefore, we advocate for the technological innovation of tobacco harm reduction as paving the way toward a smoke-free future, a healthier population, and a cleaner environment.

The technology exists to eradicate tobacco related harm. If we truly want to ‘snuff out smoking’, we need to provide smokers with statistically effective, time-tested, scientifically validated solutions. This cannot be achieved by enacting laws that prevent adult access to tobacco harm reduction products and push more young adults toward smoking.

National youth smoking rates continue to reach historic lows, down to 8% according to the CDC’s latest data. The same data shows youth vaping rates have also decreased by 30% since 2015, illustrating even more that vaping is not a gateway to smoking, and the popularity of smoking and vaping is continuing to decrease among this age group.

Creating a new ‘forbidden fruit’ to dangle in front of young people while insulting their competency as adults, is irresponsible at best and a poor response to the positive choices youth are making as reflected in the age group’s already steadily declining smoking rates.

The Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior reports that anti-smoking education has had a much greater effect (smoking decline of 20%) than “exacting more responsibility from [the tobacco] industry” (smoking decline of 6%). According to this study, education campaigns are to thank for fewer young people smoking, not restrictive regulations and taxation laws. Jeff Stephens, director of state policy for the American Cancer Society in Ohio and Shelly Kiser, advocacy director for the American Lung Association in Ohio, say “youth-access laws are among the least-effective ways to prevent minors from getting hold of tobacco products”. Tobacco-control groups need to focus their resources on accurate education-based approach rather than trying to social-engineer behavior through arbitrary prohibitive measures that have a history of failure.

When considering the harm reduction benefits of vaping and the dangers of smoking, it may seem logical to raise the legal age to purchase tobacco products to 21, while keeping the age to purchase vapor products at 18. While this could encourage adults over the age of 18 to choose vaping over smoking, we still need to consider the potential psychological backlash of removing freedom from legal adults. The last thing we want is to do is risk hardening a young person’s preference toward smoking, by turning smoking into a form of political activism or rebellion.

Given the fact that our youth smoking and vaping rates are already steadily declining, we find tampering with this continued progress by adopting Tobacco 21 policies, to be hazardous to public health. We strongly advise legislators to consider the ‘big picture’ and the potential harm this legislation carries with it. Smoking and vaping are both losing popularity among youth, and community leaders should strive to protect this progress by opposing Tobacco 21.