Study Finds Raising Tobacco Sales Age to 21 Drastically Reduces Teen Smoking

By McCarton Ackerman 06/23/15

A 10-year experiment in a Massachusetts town has netted encouraging results.

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When it comes to keeping cigarettes out of the hands of teenagers, the town of Needham, Mass., took a groundbreaking approach in 2005 by raising the tobacco sales age to 21. A decade later, a new study confirmed that their innovation has paid big dividends.

The findings published in Tobacco Control involved analyzing data from 16,000 high school students in Needham and 16 nearby communities, which was collected on four occasions between 2006 and 2012. Years later, Needham showed significant decreases in smoking that the other neighborhoods did not.

The number of kids under 18 buying cigarettes in Needham declined during this time period from 18.4% to 11.6%. Smoking in the last 30 days among Needham students also declined from 12.9% to 5.5%.

Conversely, the number of teen smokers in surrounding communities either changed less drastically or didn’t change at all. The number of students who bought cigarettes during this time period only dropped from 19.4% to 19%. The percentage of students who reported smoking in the last 30 days was reduced from 14.8% in 2006 to 8.5% in 2012, a 6.3% reduction compared to the 7.4% that Needham experienced.

The findings were published in the latest issue of Tobacco Control.

“More than 80% of smokers begin before 18,” said lead author Shari Kessel Schneider, project director at the Education Development Center in Waltham, Mass. “Our findings provide strong support for initiatives going on all across the country to increase the sales age as a means for decreasing youth access to cigarettes, initiation of smoking, and ultimately addiction.”

The findings in the study match what other research projects have also found. Earlier this year, the Institute of Medicine reported that smoking rates across the country would drop by 12% if every state raised the tobacco sales age to 21, thereby preventing 249,000 premature deaths among those between 2000 and 2019. About 45,000 of these deaths would have been from lung cancer.

Dozens of cities and towns across the country, including New York City, have since raised their minimum ages to 21. Four states have also bumped the legal age to purchase tobacco to 19, including Alabama, Alaska, New Jersey, and Utah.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.