Raising The Legal Smoking Age Could Bring Health Benefits; FDA Report Calculates Millions Of Lives Saved

Smoking Age Affects Health
Raising the minimum smoking age can change future generations' health for the rest of their young lives. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Cigarettes have influenced young generations since the Marlboro cowboy, the camel, and cinema celebrities made their public debut, but only now has a study determined the health implications of a smoker’s age limit. A new analysis out of the Institute of Medicine (IOM) has calculated just how many lives could be saved if the legal smoking age was raised to 21 years old. The report outlines why millions of people grow up to become smokers from the young age of 18, and how it leads to years of life-threatening addiction.

It turns out the ripple effect of having a 21-year-old minimum legal age (MLA) for smoking would result in fewer than 50,000 premature deaths from lung cancer. According to the results, the health of the next generation, born between 2000 and 2019, depends on an increased minimum age.

"The public health impact of raising the MLA for tobacco products depends on the degree to which local and state governments change their policies," the researchers wrote. "These decisions will depend on each state's or locality's balance between personal interests and the privacy of young adults to make their own choices versus society's legitimate concerns about protecting public health."

Congress has not attempted to reinforce any nationwide smoking age limit, which makes each county and state in the country responsible for developing their own local laws. The Food and Drug Administration requested the study in order to compare the long-term health effects of reinforcing a MLA of 19, 21, and 25 for states to make educated decisions in their lawmaking process.

Raising The Age Limit And Its Lasting Effects

The IOM found states with a minimum age of 19 reduce the smoking prevalence by only three percent. Setting the age higher, at 21 years old, could reduce risk by 12 percent. But if the nationwide legal smoking age rose to 25 among today’s growing children and adolescents, the chances of them becoming smoking adults would decline by 16 percent. Over time, fewer people would have to live with first and secondhand smoke, and the potential to live a healthy, lung cancer-free life would improve. In fact, after 30 years, the researchers believe it would prevent 223,000 deaths with a total of 4.2 percent fewer lung cancer deaths over a lifetime.

"This is a complex issue and Congress has established a thoughtful process to better understand it,” Brian May, the spokesman for Altria Group’s Philip Morris, which owns Marlboro cigarette company, told CNN. “We believe states and localities should defer to this process and allow FDA and Congress the opportunity to think through this issue further before enacting different minimum age laws."

Cigarette smoking is the number one cause of lung cancer, and is linked to 90 percent of all lung cancer diagnoses in America, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tobacco smoke alone contains a cocktail of 7,000 different toxic chemicals, of which at least 70 are known causes of cancer in humans and animals. The more years a smoker has under their belt and the more frequently they smoke, the higher the risk of lung cancer.

Half of the current smokers in the United States report that they started smoking before they were 18 years old. Older high school students who are legally allowed to smoke at age 18 sometimes pressure their peers or influence younger students to follow their habit. Teenagers are especially vulnerable to addiction because of their highly impressionable and growing brains.  

Fortunately, in the last couple of decades, fewer teenagers have used tobacco products. However, exposure to smoke in early age remains a threat to children and adolescents. 

Source: Public Health Implications of Raising the Minimum Age of Legal Access to Tobacco Products. Institute of Medicine. 2015.

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