Thursday, April 13, 2017

Age Restrictions on Smoking, Drinking and Driving

State legislatures have been lobbied in a coordinated effort, called Tobacco 21 (here), to raise the minimum age for tobacco sales from 18 to 21 years.  Hawaii, California and the District of Columbia have adopted the higher age limit, but numerous city and county ordinances have been passed.

As an advocate of tobacco harm reduction, I strongly oppose any tobacco use by teenagers.  However, I am unconvinced that implementing a smoking ban for those under 21 is an effective strategy.

One of the arguments for Tobacco 21 is that the same age limit has reduced teenage drinking.  The National Minimum Drinking Age Act was passed in 1984.  By 1988, all states prohibited alcohol purchase by those under 21.  The impact on underage drinking is debatable.  It has been on the decline for many years, but rates remain disturbingly high (here). 

The chart above shows past-month (i.e., current) cigarette smoking, marijuana use, alcohol consumption and binge drinking (5 or more drinks on one occasion) among 16-17, 18-20 and 21-25 year olds in the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.  Despite almost 30 years of Alcohol 21 across the county, nearly a quarter of 16-17 year-olds and 44% of 18-20 year-olds were currently drinking, compared with 11% and 24% who were smoking.  In addition, a majority of drinkers were binging.  In 2014, recreational marijuana wasn’t legal for anyone, yet 15% of 16-17 year-olds and 21% of 18-20 year-olds were using that drug. 

We can also compare these figures with those from 10 years earlier.  Here are the changes in current use from 2004:

Percentage Change From 2004 to 2014 in Prevalence of Youth and Young Adults Who Currently Smoke, Toke, Drink or Binge Drink

Age (yrs)SmokeToke(%)DrinkBinge Drink


With Alcohol 21 in force for almost 30 years, drinking and binge drinking declined moderately among 16-17 year olds.  But smoking saw the steepest declines in all age groups, even in the absence of a ban for 18-20 year-olds.

Alcohol 21 and Tobacco 21 laws are promoted to save lives.  In the case of smoking, the lives saved are far in the future, as smoking generally takes a toll in advanced age.  With alcohol, the lives saved are primarily from traffic accidents.  With or without alcohol, traffic accidents are the number one killer of youth and young adults (age 16-24 years), with about 7,000 deaths each year (here).  Legislators seeking immediate life-saving impact should consider further age-restricted driving licenses. 


Bill Godshall said...

Since cigarettes are exponentially more extremely harmful, increasing the legal minimum age for cigarette sales to 21 is totally justified.

But there is no rational reason to increase the minimum age for sales of very low risk smokeless tobacco and vapor products, or for cigars or hookah (which are far lower risk than cigarettes) unless one's goal is to confuse the public to believe that all vapor and tobacco products are just as harmful as cigarettes.

Unknown said...

It is a fact that brain and body maturity starts from age of 21. And laws are matching it quite properly...