Last week a bill was passed in New York City to raise the purchase age of cigarettes from 18 to 21. The driving force behind the bill was city councillor James Gennaro, who lost both parents to smoking related diseases and knows more than most the effects that smoking can have on a family.
The changes in NYC have sparked debate in Canada over whether we should follow suit. At the moment, the purchase age is either 18 or 19, depending on which province you live in. But, could a blanket age restriction of 21 stop teens smoking altogether? After all, it’s a well-known fact that most lifelong smokers start when they are teenagers. According to statistics from the 2012 US Surgeon General’s Report, 90% of smokers said they started before the age of 18, and 99% of them started before the age of 25. It’s very unusual for an adult to get to maturity and then decide to start smoking. If we break the habits early on, it reduces the likelihood of people smoking later on in life.
But, these same stats throw up an interesting question – will teens somehow still manage to get hold of cigarettes, whatever the age limit? After all, in the American report, most of the smokers had started before the age of consent, suggesting that if teenagers are determined to get hold of cigarettes, they will somehow. One New York teenager has been quoted as saying that she started smoking at 13 and has never had a problem getting hold of cigarettes: “I buy them off people or I bum them off people” said the 16-year-old to the New York Times. So, while the new legislation in New York will help reduce teen smoking, it needs to go hand-in-hand with tighter measures for verifying someone’s age, and penalties for those who buy cigarettes and then sell them to minors.
There is a lot of evidence to support the age change. When the UK increased the age of consent from 16 to 18 in 2007, it saw a marked decrease in the number of teens smoking – research by University College London says that the rate among one group of teens dropped from 24% to 17% after the age limit went up. In the simplest terms, it worked by removing the ambiguity around a teenager’s age. Many 14-year-olds can pass as 16-year-olds in order to buy cigarettes, but the same 14-year-olds would struggle to pass as 18-year-olds. Apply that to the 16-year-old in New York City, who is now going to have to act 5 years older than she is, and you can see that the raising of the age limit will leave a lot of teen-smoker wannabes unable to get hold of the cigarettes they want.
But as ever, smokers feel that a change in Canada would impinge on their civil rights – after all, there is so much you can do at 18 or 19. You can drink, get married and join the army, but not smoke? Teenagers insist that they are mature enough to make these decisions, and that they can quit whenever they want to. The statistics on adult smokers and how early they started seems to refute this.
Until next time,
Peace, love and vitamin C!