Can No-Smoke Zones Prevent Young People From Smoking?

By May Wilkerson 09/10/15

Sometimes unintended consequences are a good thing.

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Laws banning smoking in the workplace and public spaces could have a major impact on young people’s smoking habits, a new study finds.

Smoke-free laws in public spaces, including restaurants, bars, and offices were initially intended to protect people from exposure to secondhand smoke. But it turns out these laws, in addition to taxes on tobacco products, have significantly reduced the chances of young people starting to smoke in the first place.

Using data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, researchers examined how smoke-free laws impacted the individual smoking behaviors of 4,098 young people ages 12 through 18, between 1997 and 2007. Taking into account the impact of cigarette taxes, the study found that in places with smoke-free workplace laws, the chances of young people starting to smoke were reduced by about 34%.

"Since smoking initiation typically occurs before youth enter the workplace, smoke-free workplace laws likely affect smoking initiation by showing kids that adult smoking norms reject smoking," said study co-author Anna Song, a health psychology professor with the University of California-Merced Health Sciences Research Institute. "The findings show us that public policy is one of the most powerful tools in curbing youth smoking.”

Laws banning smoking in bars and restaurants were also found to have a major impact on teen smoking rates. In areas of the country where smoke-free bar laws were already in place in 2007, young people were 20% less likely to smoke, the study found. Current tobacco users smoked 15% fewer days per month than young people in areas without these laws.

This study, and studies in the past, have found that the odds of young people taking up smoking go down as socioeconomic factors go up. But smoke-free laws seem to have a greater impact than these factors. "We found the effect of smoke-free laws to have a considerably stronger effect on reducing the odds of smoking across the board, even more so than socioeconomic factors," said Song.

According to Stanton Glantz, senior researcher on the study and a professor at University of California-San Francisco, it’s laws in the workplace that have the greatest impact. "Smoke-free workplace laws have the most powerful effect on smoking initiation, equivalent to the deterrent impact of a $1.57 tax increase," he said. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids states that every 10% increase in cigarette prices decreases the rate of young-adult smokers by 3.5%.

Though the U.S. smoking rate has declined in the past decade, smoking kills more than 480,000 Americans a year, more than 42,000 of them from secondhand smoke exposure, according to 2014 figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Still, the freedom-loving American public is not entirely on board with anti-smoking laws, despite potential for lives saved. "When it comes to these smoke-free policies, I hear it all the time from the general public: 'Here's another law telling me what I can't do.' However, if you knew you were saving lives, would you do it?" asked Song. "Sure, it's inconvenient to save lives, but, look at the good it is doing."

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.