Skip to main content

California Should Raise The Smoking Age To 21

A bill proposed in California to raise the legal smoking age to 21 will save lives and lead to fewer addictions, despite criticisms that doing so will somehow lead to more young people smoking cigarettes or other forms of tobacco.

The argument against the bill, laid out in an L.A. Times article by Mike Males, amounts to the following: When governments try to curtail an activity by imposing penalties, they inadvertently get more of that activity or solve one problem while creating another.  

Males cites previous attempts to enforce tobacco age bans, the raising of the drinking age to 21, and laws which prevent adolescents from driving after midnight as examples of things which legislators have gotten wrong.

This does not make sense; while there is evidence to support, for example, that rates of tobacco smoking underwent a long decline in the U.S. between the late 1970s and the early 1990s, Males suggests smoking rates took off again in 1992 because of Congress' decision to set the legal smoking age at 18.  It's not impossible that this is the case, but different generational attitudes toward activities like smoking and drinking also need to be taken into account.

As for the drinking age, Males says long-term studies have shown that raising the drinking age from 18 to 21 correlated with increased deaths among 21 to 24-year-olds; this ignores the fact that studies show the drinking age of 21 cuts down an estimated 900 potential deaths every year from underage drunk driving, according to U.S. News & World Report.

It is really this simple: If you ban an entire age group from engaging in a certain activity, there will be less of this activity.

In the case of the smoking age, increasing it from 18 to 21 will help because 90 percent of adult smokers first use cigarettes before the age of 19, according to an Institute of Medicine study from 2015.

Since most children and underage teenage smokers obtain tobacco from slightly older friends or relatives, the newly proposed bill will undoubtedly lead to fewer smokers.  The study concluded the legislation would prevent roughly 220,000 premature deaths every year, The New York Times reports.

There are other ways to limit youth use of tobacco, such as increasing the tax on tobacco items or taking a Canadian-like approach and banning the open display of tobacco products in convenience stores.  However, if the goal is to decrease tobacco use among a specific age cohort -- 18 to 21, in this case -- the new legislation should work as proposed.  

The legislation was signed by the California Senate on March 10, and currently awaits Gov. Jerry Brown's signature.

Click here for the opposing view on this topic.

Sources: The New York Times, L.A. Times, U.S. News & World Report / Photo credit: Flickr/Matthias Weinberger

Popular Video