San Francisco Raises Minimum Smoking Age to 21

By May Wilkerson 03/04/16

San Francisco joins over 100 other U.S. cities that are raising the legal age limit for tobacco products. 

San Francisco Raises Minimum Smoking Age to 21
Photo via Shutterstock/Sorbis

San Francisco has just taken a major step in the war on smoking. Starting June 1, anyone wanting to purchase cigarettes, e-cigarettes or other tobacco products in the California city must be at least 21. The legal smoking age in the majority of the U.S. is 18.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved the measure by a unanimous vote this week. The city will join Boston, New York and more than 100 other U.S. cities raising the minimum age to buy tobacco products. On the first of January this year, Hawaii became the first state to raise the minimum smoking age from 18 to 21.

The measure could have a major impact on public health. Teenagers, especially between ages 15 and 17, are thought to be most susceptible to tobacco addiction. They are also especially vulnerable at those ages, as their brains are still developing. According to a report released last year by the Institute of Medicine, 90% of daily smokers had first tried a cigarette before age 19. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics and other major health organizations have strongly urged lawmakers to raise the legal age for tobacco purchases to 21 across the country. Doing so could result in about 223,000 fewer premature deaths and 50,000 fewer lung cancer deaths among people born between 2000 and 2019, according to the Institute of Medicine report.

"Older smokers have a higher quit rate than younger smokers. Older smokers are more likely to get treatment," said Carol Southard, a tobacco treatment specialist at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Northwestern Medicine. "The literature has been so consistent that if we can [stop] the kid from starting in the first place, or at least get the kid to stop before they're 21, we've done something significant."

The new law could also discourage high school students from getting tobacco products from their peers, since no high school student would be old enough to purchase them. "Many children under 18 get tobacco from those over 18 at their school," said Dr. Karen Wilson, an associate professor of pediatrics at Children's Hospital Colorado.

There is some evidence that exposure to nicotine, either directly or through secondhand smoke, can increase teens’ likelihood of getting addicted later on, said Wilson. "Tobacco [is] arguably the most addictive substance on the planet, which has no redeeming qualities whatsoever, in any way, shape or form," said CNN chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta. "No matter what your age, smoking is one of the single worst things you can do to your body."

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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.