Just like alcohol, heroin and cocaine, nicotine is a drug that leads to addiction. In the brain, it increases levels of the dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of pleasure and reward that often develop into cravings. Research has shown that 95 percent of adult cigarette smokers began smoking during adolescence or their teenage years. This is why state and local governments around the country, including California, have raised, or are attempting to raise the purchase age of tobacco to 21 years old.
In the absence of a federal mandate to increase the purchase age, city governments are changing their own ordinances. In Massachusetts alone, more than 80 communities have made the purchase age 21 for cigarettes and tobacco products. New York City, Cleveland, Ohio, both Kansas City, Kansas and Missouri have done the same.
A 2015 report commissioned by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about raising the minimum age for tobacco products concluded it will provide some of the following benefits:
- Significantly reduce the number of adolescents and young adults who start smoking
- Immediately improve the health of teenagers
- Reduces the number of smoking related diseases and deaths
- Deters young mothers from smoking, benefiting their children’s health
The move to increase the minimum age for purchasing tobacco products to the age of 21, though, has not come without controversy. The National Association of Tobacco Outlets (NATO) feels these ordinances preempt federal law and punish retailers’ ability to legally sell tobacco. In Healdbsurg, California, the city council received threats of a lawsuit from NATO after raising the tobacco purchase age to 21 in July 2015.
“This is about trying to save people’s lives,” Mayor of Healdsburg, Jim Woods, told The Press Democrat. “I see more young people than ever smoking. It’s distressing.”
Though the national trend in teenage cigarette smoking has seen a decline, there have been other troubling developments.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) adolescent tobacco use has surged in other areas, such as the following:
- Electronic cigarettes, aka e-cigs, the practice of vaporizing liquid nicotine that comes in different flavors and is marketed as being safe. From 2011 to 2014, the CDC reports a more than 13 percent increase in high school students using e-cigs.
- Hookahs, large tobacco pipes with flexible tubes that draw tobacco smoke through water and are generally shared in a social setting. An estimated 9.5 percent of high school students reported using a hookah in the past 30 days, in 2014, an increase of 4 percent since 2011.
- Smokeless tobacco, products that are chewed or placed between the cheek and gum where nicotine is absorbed directly into the bloodstream. In 2014, the CDC reported that 5 out of every 100 high school students admitted to using smokeless products in the past month.
Opponents of raising the age limit argue that if 18-year-olds can vote and enlist in the military, they should be able to buy tobacco products, though this argument has been used for lowering the drinking age and has been unsuccessful. Anti-tobacco advocates claim that companies want to keep the lower age limit to protect profits and cultivate “replacement-smokers.”
With states like Hawaii banning cigarette sales to anyone under the age of 21 and cities like Chicago following suit, the cause is gaining momentum and the federal government might soon be weighing in on a national age limit. Addiction of any kind is unhealthy and can lead to a variety of physical and mental disorders. Teens and adolescents have brains that are still developing and are the most vulnerable to addiction if exposed to nicotine, alcohol and other drugs.