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California Raises Smoking Age To 21: Will This Reduce Rate Of Tobacco Use?

Lawmakers are taking up the approach of "blanket age discrimination" to push anti-smoking efforts into motion, but will this be enough to reduce the rate of tobacco use?

On Thursday, California legislators agreed to raise the smoking age in the state from 18 to 21 years old. The legislation, which consists of six bills, would restrict the use of tobacco products and the widely popular e-cigarettes or "vapes" among teens.

If it becomes the law, California would become the second state in the United States to place a blanket ban on the purchasing age of tobacco products, alongside Hawaii. As such, the new legislation garnered both criticism and praise.

"Nicotine Enslaves The User"

Experts are concerned that the nicotine in e-cigs would become a gateway drug that re-wires the brain of adolescents, consequently making other drugs such as cocaine and heroin more addictive.

Ken Farbstein, a grass-roots campaign coordinator for Tobacco Free Mass, wrote to the New York Times that although adults must be free to choose, teens should not be enticed into a lethal addiction through traditional cigarettes, tobacco products and e-cigs.

"Nicotine enslaves smokers in their addiction, leaving most of them unable to quit despite numerous attempts," said Farbstein. "That's why most current smokers advocate a minimum legal sales age of 21 for tobacco products."

In fact, previous studies have revealed that the use of vapes among teens most likely increases their chances of tobacco or cigarette smoking.

A study featured in the journal Tobacco Control found that adolescents who had no history of cigarette smoking but jumped straight into e-cig use were thrice more likely to go on smoking traditional cigarettes a year later than those who have never tried e-cigs. With it, researchers indicated that restricting e-cig access to teens is important.

Stephen Silver from San Francisco also wrote to the New York Times and said the legislation will stop many young people from becoming smokers and will save hundreds of thousands from dying prematurely because of lung cancer, stroke, emphysema, and heart disease.

The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees, saying that premature deaths would become 223,000 fewer, while lung cancer-related deaths would become 50,000 fewer.

"The Approach Does Not Work"

However, other experts oppose the proposed legislation.

Mike Males, an expert from San Francisco's Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, wrote for the Los Angeles Times, saying that raising the smoking age to reduce tobacco use among teens does not work, especially since there is no systematic research to show that the blanket ban deters a teen from picking up the habit.

Although the proposed legislation is based on the 2015 report by the Institute of Medicine, the said report acknowledged only as much even though it projected a 12 percent decline in smoking among adults if the minimum age is 21.

Males said there are evidence that similar measures have bad effects. For instance, three communities in Massachusetts had implemented a strict enforcement campaign against the sale of tobacco among teenagers in the 1990s.

The measure was supposed to see a sharp reduction in teen smoking, but a two-year study conducted by medical school researchers found that the result was "failure", Males said.

The blanket ban did make it so less stores sold tobacco to minors, but researchers found that there was no effect in the ability of high school students in those communities to get cigarettes.

There were also no reduction in smoking prevalence. What's more, teenage smoking in the area even increased compared with other communities that did not implement a strict ban.

Additionally, a study from Weill Cornell Medicine suggests that placing the minimum age for purchasing electronic nicotine devices may unintentionally boost teen smoking.

Researchers found that there was an 11.7 percent rise in smoking of traditional cigarettes among teens after age restrictions on vaping were imposed.

Teens who live in areas without age restrictions on e-cigs were more likely to quit tobacco smoking than those who live in areas with restrictions, the study added. It implies that e-cigs serve as a smoking alternative for teens.

In Conclusion

Depending on which side you take on, smoking is still a hazardous habit. As there are still no conclusive evidence to support whether e-cigs are actually more effective than traditional smoking, further studies should look into the matter. The National Health and Medical Research Council is currently funding research [PDF] to find out how effective e-cigs are in helping smokers quit.

Photo: Lindsay Fox | Flickr

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