July 13, 2015

New Study: To Reduce Smoking, Raise Sales Age

A new EDC study shows increasing the legal tobacco sales age to 21 reduces smoking among teens

According to a new EDC study published online in Tobacco Control, an effective way to keep teenagers from smoking is to raise the legal age to purchase cigarettes.

EDC’s Shari Kessel Schneider, Kim Dash, and Lydia O’Donnell, and co-authors from Brown University and Harvard Medical School, came to this conclusion after examining data from the MetroWest Adolescent Health Survey, a biennial census of more than 16,000 high school students in Boston’s MetroWest suburbs. The survey is funded by the MetroWest Health Foundation.

The team compared teen smoking in Needham, Massachusetts—which, in 2005, was the first community in the United States to raise the minimum sales age of tobacco products to 21—with rates in surrounding communities that maintained the minimum sales age at 18. In the four years following the ordinance, teen cigarette smoking in Needham declined by nearly half, from 13 percent to 7 percent. Over the same time period, smoking rates decreased by only 3 percentage points—from 15 percent to 12 percent—in surrounding communities.

“Needham is a compelling example for other communities considering policy changes to reduce youth smoking,” says Schneider.

Q: Why does increasing the age of legal sales reduce smoking?

Schneider: A key tobacco prevention strategy is limiting access. “Social availability” of cigarettes is common among teens, meaning that they frequently obtain cigarettes from peers 18 or older who can purchase them legally. Raising the minimum sales age to 21 prevents teens from purchasing cigarettes themselves; it also restricts the number of legal buyers in teens’ social circles.

Q: Why is this finding important?

Schneider: This study provides compelling evidence that raising the legal sales age for cigarettes is a key strategy for preventing youth smoking. About 80 percent of adults who smoke began smoking prior to age 18. So decreasing the number of adolescents who try smoking is a crucial public health strategy for preventing tobacco-related death and disease later in life.

Q: How does this study impact public health in general?

Schneider: Despite the fact that many states and communities across the country are considering raising the minimum tobacco sales age, there has been little direct evidence that doing so can reduce youth smoking. To our knowledge, this is the first study that provides actual data on teen smoking to show that this approach is effective.

Q: Have other communities considered raising the smoking age, as Needham did?

Schneider: As of June 2015, 45 communities in Massachusetts have a minimum tobacco sales age of 21. Another 14 are implementing similar ordinances before the end of the year.

Across the country, however, only about 80 communities have raised the legal sales age to 21, so Massachusetts is really at the forefront of this movement. It’s also worth noting that Hawaii was the first to pass a statewide increase in the minimum sales age, and Massachusetts, California, New York, New Jersey, and Washington are considering similar legislation.