Raise minimum age to buy cigarettes to decrease use, study says

Raising the minimum age to purchase tobacco products to 21 or 25 years old would significantly reduce their use and tobacco-related illnesses in the United States, a study published Thursday found, suggesting that states and local authorities should consider passing such laws.

If the minimum age was raised to 19 years old, smoking prevalence would decrease 3 percent by 2100. It would decrease by 12 and 16 percent in the same period if the legal age was raised to 21 or 25 years old, according to the study conducted by the influential Institute of Medicine and a panel of experts.

U.S. smoking rates have dropped sharply from 42 percent of the population in 1964 to 18 percent today. Along with many other measures aimed at curbing smoking during that period, states have established minimum legal ages, mostly at 18 years old. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which sponsored the report, cannot increase the minimum age to buy tobacco in the country from 18, but states and local authorities can do so.

Four states - Alabama, Alaska, New Jersey and Utah - have increased the minimum age to buy cigarettes to 19 years old. New York City and some cities in Massachusetts have increased it to 21 years old.

The report was presented to the FDA on Tuesday, said Richard Bonnie, chair of the report committee. "We hope that the localities and the states will pay attention to the report as they make their judgments about what to do," he said in an interview.

Many parts of the brain do not fully develop until age 25, including the parts most responsible for impulse control, decision making and peer susceptibility and conformity, according to the study. That makes adolescent brains highly vulnerable to nicotine use and addiction, researchers said.

Among people who smoked daily, 90 percent had tried their first cigarette before the age of 19 while the remaining 10 percent had tried tobacco products by 26, the study found. That data suggests that if someone has not smoked a cigarette by 25 years old, they are unlikely ever to do so, said Bonnie.

Raising the minimum age to buy tobacco products would reduce not only smoking rates, but many tobacco-related illnesses. For example, researchers estimate that if the legal age was raised to 21, there would be 249,000 fewer premature deaths for people born between 2000 and 2019, 45,000 fewer deaths from lung cancer and 4.2 million fewer years of life lost.