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Opinion: Raise age to legally buy tobacco to 25 years old

National non-smoking week will be observed the week of Jan. 17 with one of the stated goals being a smoke-free Canadian society. The toll of nicotine addiction continues to be significant. The annual death toll is staggering — about 6,000 British Columbians, about 40,000 Canadians and worldwide about six million. The Conference Board of Canada estimates the annual economic costs of smoking in Canada to be $11.4 billion.

Significant progress has been made in reducing the percentage of smokers, however, progress has stalled and has even reversed for 19 to 25 year olds. And yes, this is an addiction that targets our youth with 99 per cent of smokers starting to smoke before age 25, 90 per cent before age 19. Government regulations have assisted but more needs to be done.

Government should cease providing financial support to an industry that markets the glamour of smoking. In B.C. alone, the entertainment industry is provided with about $500 million in tax breaks while it continues to push the coolness of smoking to youth. Only entertainment that is free of smoking images should qualify for tax breaks.

Retailer compliance requires significant improvement. Health Canada reports that 28 per cent of minors buy tobacco directly from retailers. Fraser Health spends about $265,000 annually on compliance audits — clearly this is insufficient funding. However, why are health-care dollars spent on retailer compliance? Shouldn’t retailers, who profit from tobacco sales, pay for compliance audits? An annual retailer licence fee of $1,000 would generate about $6 million annually to fund increased compliance audits. Further, the government should implement a moratorium on new licences until retailers can demonstrate 100-per-cent compliance.

Many health consequences of tobacco aren’t well understood by the public. For example, research has found that nicotine primes the developing brain of youth for addiction to other illicit substances. A 2012 U.S. study found that 87.9 per cent of 18 to 34 year olds who had ever used cocaine had smoked cigarettes before using cocaine.

The New England Journal of Medicine published a Sept. 4, 2014, study, by Dr. Eric Kandel and Dr. Denise Kandel. They found that “nicotine acts as a gateway drug on the brain, and this effect is likely to occur whether the exposure is from smoking tobacco, passive tobacco smoke or e-cigarettes. More effective prevention programs need to be developed for all products that contain nicotine, especially those targeting young people. Our data suggests that effective interventions would not only prevent smoking and its negative health consequences, but also decrease the risk of progressing to illicit drug use and addiction.” Given the recent spike in drug-overdose deaths, protecting our youth from nicotine addiction has increased urgency.

So what is the medically appropriate age to legally buy tobacco if we want to achieve a smoke-free society? Quite simply it’s 25. The empirical evidence is clear, only one per cent of smokers start smoking after age 25. Why the dramatic drop-off at that age? Dr. Frances Jensen answers that question in her book, “The Teenage Brain” — the rational part of young brains isn’t fully developed until age 25 or so — a conclusion supported by other researchers. And for those minors who are unable to purchase directly from retailers, their source of tobacco are friends who are old enough to buy tobacco (and in most cases are under age 25).

The evidence is clear, the war on tobacco isn’t yet won.

Art Van Pelt is a former food-retailing executive and the founder of Susan’s Battle, a family advocacy group seeking government action to better protect youth from nicotine addiction. A teenage smoker, Susan smoked for 20 years. At the time of her lung-cancer diagnosis Susan had been smoke-free for 23 years. Susan passed away seven weeks after her initial diagnosis of Stage 4, non-small-cell lung cancer at age 58. Former smokers never reduce their risk of lung cancer to that of a never smoker.

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