Tobacco 21, the latest strategy in "youth tobacco prevention," aims to raise the minimum legal sales age for tobacco (and low-risk vapor products) to 21. Proponents hope that raising the smoking age will make access to tobacco products for teens more difficult and prevent future adult smokers. That's despite a lack of conclusive evidence to support the speculation (Our View: "State up next on tobacco age," May 10).
This campaign may seem noble on the surface, but when inspected further, there's great potential to actually increase smoking rates through a reverse psychology effect: Psychological reactance is an aversive affective reaction in response to regulations or impositions that impinge on freedom and autonomy. Reactance theory suggests that whenever people believe their freedom either has or will be unjustly threatened, they enter into a reactance motivational state and act to regain control by not complying. It's basic human nature.
Although there currently is no conclusive evidence to support proponents' speculation that "raising the smoking age" will curtail youth tobacco access, there is evidence in the results of raising the drinking age.
Since raising the drinking age to 21, there has been an increase in college binge drinking; according to the Centers for Disease Control, "People ages 12 to 20 years drink 11 percent of all alcohol consumed in the United States. Underage drinkers consume more drinks per drinking occasion than adult drinkers." Any potential good from raising the drinking has been outweighed by the added danger caused by binge drinking in this age group.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism says that even though the "21-year-old drinking age has been in place for nearly 25 years, we are still facing an environment where drinking by people under 21 is the norm."
To assume 18- to 20-year-olds suddenly will stop purchasing or using tobacco products because a city restricted their sales is a nice sentiment. But when applied in the real world, it isn't realistic.
Such a restriction actually would make access to cigarettes easier for those underage because it would help to create a lucrative black market. There's no doubt an 18-year-old will make the drive to a neighboring city, or even state, to buy cigarettes if he or she wants them. Restricting sales to those 21 and older could encourage that 18-year-old to buy in bulk and then return home to capitalize on a fantastic business opportunity. Keep in mind, 18- to 20-year-olds cornering this new black market would not be requiring age verification for sales. So just like that we would have more cigarettes in our schools than ever before.
Additionally, Tobacco 21 denies adults ages 18-20 access to smoke-free alternatives that have been found to be at least 95 percent-less-harmful by the Royal College of Physicians. A recently published National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, "The Effects of E-cigarette Minimum Legal Sale Age Laws on Youth Substance Use," research supported by the National Institutes of Health, concluded that laws banning the sales of e-cigarettes to young adults actually pushed youth toward traditional cigarettes. It concluded that the unintended consequence of such laws was concerning and may have a negative impact on public health.
Teen smoking has dropped from 23 percent to an all-time low of 6 percent over the past decade. As a tobacco-harm-reduction advocate, I am thrilled to see this.
Clearly, progress is being made. So why on earth would we want to risk thwarting that progress by creating a new forbidden fruit to dangle in front of young people, drawing more attention to smoking in an already phasing-out epidemic and setting the stage for an underage black market?
With such potential for Tobacco 21 to increase smoking and the availability of tobacco products to teens in the wake of smoking rates already on a historic downtrend, who will benefit from this policy? Follow the money trail. Anti-tobacco groups get funding from the state's general fund (largely via tobacco tax settlement money) and from federal agencies like the CDC and Food and Drug Administration. The FDA is largely funded by Big Pharma, and Big Pharma's revenue in tobacco-related disease alone is upwards of $2 trillion globally. The vitality of anti-tobacco organizations and their benefactors depends on people continuing to smoke. Let that sink in.
Jerry Iozzo of Hibbing smoked for 23 years and now advocates for smokers and their right to choose safer alternatives to cigarettes as a way to quit smoking. Jen Hoban, owner of Masterpiece Vapors in the Minnesota cities of Detroit Lakes and Perham contributed to the writing of this commentary.