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January 23rd, 2016:

Tobacco foes see hope in higher minimum age

More cities require buyers to be at least 21

Teens and young adults are likely to stop smoking — or never start — if they have to ask those 21 and older to buy cigarettes for them.

That’s the premise of research that supports a new plan put forth by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel last week to raise the minimum age for buying tobacco.

Experts say the approach is gaining traction around the country after a recent study estimated such laws would discourage smoking at an age when many people first get addicted. Chicago would join a list of more than 100 cities nationwide to raise the legal age for buying tobacco from 18 to 21.

Emanuel introduced the legislation in the Chicago City Council Jan. 13. The bill bundles the age provision with tax hikes on cigars, roll-your-own cigarettes and smokeless tobacco.

“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 (delay) 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.”

Most states long ago set the legal tobacco age at 18, but a March 2015 study from the Institute of Medicine in Washington, D.C., sparked a new look at the issue.

That study concluded that raising the minimum age to 21 would help delay when young adults and adolescents start using tobacco. Almost 90 percent of adult daily smokers say they began smoking before they were 19, according to the study.

Researchers said 21 as a minimum age would be particularly effective because young people who are unable to buy tobacco are most likely to get the products from friends and peers. It is less likely a 21-year-old would be in the same social circles as high school or middle school students, and thus able to provide cigarettes, according to the report.

The researchers’ model predicts that if all states immediately raised the minimum age to 21, there would be a 12 percent decrease in tobacco use among today’s teenagers by the time they become adults.

Young adult smokers who were stopping for a puff at DePaul University on Friday offered mixed responses to the idea.

A 19-year-old said the change might make her kick the habit she picked up when she started college last fall. The woman declined to give her name because her parents don’t know that she smokes.

“I wouldn’t go out of my way to get people (21 and over) to buy them for me,” she said.

Robert Davis, 19, said he would welcome the restriction on his peers. Davis, a nonsmoker, said he thinks it would cut down the number of classmates and friends that smoke — and, as a result, cut down on how many times he’s forced to walk through a cloud of smoke to get to class.

Adrian Phua, 23, another DePaul student, wondered whether he would have taken up smoking as a teenager had there been such an age restriction where he grew up in Malaysia. “I wish I would’ve never started,” he said.

But others, like Joseph Saye, 22, said younger smokers will be able to find ways around the law. Saye, a smoker since he was 19, said he doubts an older age requirement would have much effect.

George Georgiev, 26, agreed, saying younger smokers would get cigarettes as easily as they can get alcohol before their 21st birthday.

“Has the drinking age being 21 stopped people from drinking? No. They might have to use more resources to get around (age laws), but it hasn’t stopped it,” he said. “People will always find a way.”

But Lila Johnson, program manager for tobacco prevention and education at the Hawaii Department of Health, said the new study helped to convince officials there to establish a legal age of 21 for buying tobacco. Hawaii’s law, the only one of its kind in the country, became effective this month.

“The scientific basis landed right in our lap,” Johnson said. “We don’t see the negative side effects because it’s going to protect young people, it’s going to protect our vulnerable populations. We hope to be able to show the difference that it makes.”

Emanuel’s proposal also describes a goal of keeping tobacco out of the reach of young adults.

“Adolescents are more vulnerable than older adults to nicotine addiction, which can harm brain development, and 4 out of 5 adult smokers start before age 21,” the ordinance states. “Raising the legal age would put tobacco products on par with alcohol and protect young adults from developing a dangerous lifelong habit.”

Emanuel also announced his intention to raise tobacco product taxes, set minimum quantities of tobacco that can be sold and set minimum prices.

The ordinance calls for a 15-cent tax per little cigar in packages of no fewer than 20, raising the fees by $3. Standard-size cigars would carry a tax of 90 cents apiece in packs of at least four. Cigars costing more than $3 each still could be sold individually.

Roll-your-own tobacco would be taxed at $6.60 per ounce, bumping the cost of a small pouch from $7.25 to $11.54. Smokeless tobacco would have a $1.80-per-ounce tax, increasing the price on a standard can from $4.19 to $6.35.

The minimum price for a pack of cigarettes or little cigars and a small package of smoking tobacco would be $11.50. Standard-size cigars would cost no less than $1.74 each and smokeless tobacco would cost no less than $4 per ounce.

The 21-and-over law also would apply to electronic cigarettes, a mayoral spokeswoman said, but the tax increase would not. Emanuel already raised e-cigarette taxes for 2016.

Alderman Proco “Joe” Moreno, 1st, Will Burns, 4th, and Ameya Pawar, 47th, co-sponsored the legislation.

“The use of smokeless tobacco and other tobacco products continues to soar because they are more inexpensive than cigarettes, but that doesn’t mean that they are any safer for Chicagoans to use,” Moreno said in a statement. Moreno previously floated the idea of taxing smokeless tobacco in September.

Should City Council members approve new pricing and age restrictions, it would be the latest in a series of moves targeting tobacco use.

Chicago consistently has ramped up tobacco taxes. The city leads the nation in federal, county, state and city taxes on cigarettes, which now total $7.17 per pack. The city added electronic cigarettes to its indoor smoking ban in 2014.
In the same year, the Chicago Park District expanded its ban on smoking to include public parks and harbors.

Jidong Huang, senior research scientist at the Institute for Health Research and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said an age requirement is just one component needed for effective tobacco control policy.

“If you want to reduce smoking of young adults, you want to limit the domains when and where they can smoke, and where they can purchase tobacco,” Huang said. “It’s a basket of tools and those tools work best when they’re working together.”

Southard of Northwestern Medicine agreed, saying a minimum-age law is good — but resources also should be devoted toward helping current smokers quit.

“This is the most difficult addiction of all to control,” Southard said. “What has impacted behavior most is cessation intervention.”

The growing push to raise the tobacco purchasing age evokes a similar effort to raise the drinking age nearly 40 years ago.

Drinking alcohol long was seen as a rite of passage — so much so that several states lowered the legal drinking age to 18 in the 1960s and 1970s, according to the National Institutes of Health.

But fatal alcohol-related traffic crashes spiked after that. The NIH said that alcohol affected 60 percent of all deadly crashes by the mid-1970s. Two-thirds of fatal accidents for people between the ages of 16 and 20 involved alcohol during that time.

President Ronald Reagan signed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act in 1984, which pledged to withhold federal highway funding from states that had not raised the legal drinking age to 21. Drunken-driving deaths have been cut in half since the early ‘80s, according to the NIH.

The Food and Drug Administration gained vast regulatory power over tobacco products in 2009, including control over how they are marketed. But in contrast to the drinking age mandate, the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act expressly forbids the FDA from implementing a national minimum age for buying tobacco older than 18. Such authority remains at state and local levels.

However, public opinion seems to be warming to an older cigarette purchasing age. More than 100 cities including New York, Cleveland and Evanston, Ill., have enacted 21-and-up tobacco laws since 2005, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Forty-five states, including Illinois, set the minimum age at 18. State law is 19 in Alabama, Alaska, New Jersey and Utah, according to the CDC.

Hawaii is the only state to impose 21-and-up. New Jersey legislators recently passed a 21-and-up bill, but it is not yet clear whether Gov. Chris Christie will endorse or veto it.

A CDC article from July concluded that 75 percent of adults — including 70 percent of smokers — favored raising the minimum age to 21.

Johnson said Hawaii officials recognize they are not at the end of the road in terms of eradicating smoking, even though fewer and fewer people smoke in the state.

“As our numbers have gone down, we’ve seen the decrease in cardiac disease and lung cancer,” Johnson said. “Yes, you want people to stop smoking, but it doesn’t count until you get to those other outcomes. You want people to be healthier.”

The Chicago proposal next will be reviewed by the council’s finance committee.
Kate Thayer of the Chicago Tribune contributed to this report.