Dr Manny's Notes

Dr. Manny: Why raising the legal smoking age won’t be a quick fix

Is having more regulations counterproductive to getting better health results? I ask this question only because it seems that in order to improve behavior— and especially when it comes to health care topics— more proposals are being put in place to regulate different things in our society, including cigarettes and alcohol.

Now, I’m not saying that those proposals are wrong, but they’re certainly confusing, especially since I don’t think the data is showing adequate results. Smoking rates among high school seniors have fallen from almost 30 percent in 1975 to less than 7.5 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. But with all of the information out there on the Internet about the health risks of smoking, it’s surprising that teenagers haven’t stopped smoking entirely.

A new study sponsored by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is suggesting that if we increase the smoking age from 18 to 19, 21 or 25, there will be significant improvement in health outcomes. To me, that makes sense because we all know the detrimental effects that cigarettes can have on health, and because research indicates the brain doesn’t develop to assess risk adequately until a person reaches their mid-20s or 30s.

But let me ask this: What good is a rule without enforcement? I have teenage kids— and they have teenage friends— and I know that the rates of teenage smoking are pretty stable in most communities. If not, then in some areas those rates are even rising. It’s very hard to keep up with statistics at these levels, and it’s similarly hard to track whether the people who are breaking the law— especially those stores that disregard or don’t enforce age limits cigarette purchasing— are being punished for doing so. My point is, just creating an age limit on who can buy certain products may not really yield the expected health benefits that we as a society want to see.

I remember when I was 18, the legal age of drinking alcohol was 18. I don’t remember my peers having the desperation for alcohol that I see in 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds today. I don’t remember my peers trying to binge drink, sneak alcohol or steal alcohol from their parents’ closets in order to have a good time. It seems to me, at least from my perception, that teenage alcohol abuse back in the day when I was 18 was not as bad as it is today.

So, one has to be careful because I think that industry looks at all of that very carefully. One great example is all the different kinds of products that have come to market in the last three or four years. These products— from e-cigarettes to energy drinks— attract many children and teenagers, and now we see FDA just approved powered alcohol, Palcohol, on Wednesday.

I understand the intention of public policy in regulating products— especially of things that I know are harmful for you, and are addictive like cigarettes and alcohol— but age is just a number if communities don't buy into these rules and make an active effort to implement them.

So I’d like to hear your thoughts: Should cigarettes be barred from people under the age of 25? Leave a comment and share your thoughts with me by visiting my Facebook page.

Dr. Manny Alvarez serves as Fox News Channel's senior managing health editor. He also serves as chairman of the department of obstetrics/gynecology and reproductive science at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. Click here for more information on Dr. Manny's work with Hackensack University Medical Center. Visit AskDrManny.com for more.