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How Raising Tobacco Sales Age to 21 Will Save Lives

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Can something as simple as raising the legal age for sale of tobacco products to 21 save lives? Yes! Raising the minimum sales age for tobacco products to 21 could save as many as 223,000 lives for those born between 2000 and 2019. Saving those lives, and many more, is why the American Lung Association launched "Tobacco 21," an initiative to increase the age of sale to 21 nationwide.

What makes age 21 important? Let's look at the facts:

  • Fact #1: Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable illness and death in the United States.
  • Fact #2: Most adult smokers began smoking before they turned 21.
  • Fact #3: Younger kids often rely on older classmates, aged 18 and 19, to supply them with tobacco products.
  • Fact #4: Since few students reach 21 while still in high school, raising the minimum sales age to 21 virtually eliminates high school students from legally buying tobacco, and helps break the peer supply chain to many of these younger smokers.

"Tobacco 21"  calls on the remaining 48 states and the District of Columbia to follow the lead of California and Hawaii, and raise the legal sales age for tobacco products to 21. It sounds simple, but getting there won't be. The good news is that progress is already being made.

In June of 2015, Hawaii passed a bill making it the first state to raise its minimum sales age for tobacco products to 21. California followed suit in May of 2016. In addition, close to 200 cities and communities in 14 different states have passed local Tobacco 21 laws as of September 2016, including New York City, Boston and Chicago. 

There's solid evidence that these efforts will save lives. In 2015, a report from the National Academy of Medicine (NAM) found that increasing the minimum age of sale for tobacco products to at least 21 years old would reduce smoking by a dramatic 25 percent among 15-17 year-olds and by a still significant 15 percent among those 18-20 years old. This could prevent 223,000 deaths nationwide among people born between 2000 and 2019.

Today, close to 4,700 young people, under 21 try their first cigarette every day, and 1,400 of them will become regular smokers. One-third to one-half of these kids will die from smoking-related diseases. "Tobacco 21" can help break this cycle of death and disease.

Increasing the sales age for tobacco products will also help counter the tobacco industry's efforts to target young people at a critical time when many move from experimenting with tobacco to regular smoking.  This is important, because getting kids to smoke has always been a top priority of the tobacco industry. A document from RJ Reynolds, a major tobacco company, confirmed this, saying: "If a man has never smoked by age 18, the odds are three-to-one that he never will. By age 21, the odds are twenty-to-one."

Our mission is to save lives by improving lung health and preventing lung disease. The most effective way to protect our kids from the terrible toll of tobacco use is to make sure they never start smoking in the first place. Raising the legal tobacco sales age to 21 will help do just that.

Learn more about "Tobacco 21," track our progress and find out how you can help

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Related Topic: Tobacco & Smoking

  • Thomas Carr
    Director of National Policy
    American Lung Association
    Thomas Carr has been the Director of National Policy at the American Lung Association since October 2010 and held the title of Manager, National Policy and Policy Analyst with the Lung Association prior to that.

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