Six months from now, a new bill that Mayor Bloomberg signed will go into effect. The minimum age to buy tobacco will rise from 18 to 21, making New York City the home of the strictest tobacco laws in the country.
I understand the intentions of the law. Smoking is really bad for you, and if you start smoking younger, the higher your chances are you’ll continue smoking into the future. Almost 90% of replacement smokers (new smokers that keep the tobacco industry going) smoke their first cigarette by age 18. The Surgeon General notes that “almost no one starts smoking after age 25. Nearly 9 out of 10 smokers started smoking by age 18, and 99% started by age 26. Progression from occasional to daily smoking almost always occurs by age 26.”
So, in some ways, I understand why well-intentioned public officials want to use a law to help prevent young people from smoking. But the law is ignorant of smoking rates among young people, it does not reflect the efficacy of non-coercive education campaigns, and it will have a host of really bad unintended consequences. Basically, the smoking law is going to hurt a whole lot more than help.
Let’s look at some statistics. According to Rasmussen Reports, only 10% of Americans are smokers. In fact, Gallup notes that America is lighting up less than ever before, and only 1% of Americans smoke more than a pack a day (compare that to 30% in 1978). Most smokers want to quit.
Millennials, especially, are smoking less than ever before. While young people tend to smoke more than older people, Millennials are kicking the habit quicker than any other age group (down 17.6% from 2005 to 2010). In fact, it’s older people (65+) that have growing instances of smoking. In other words, Millennials are quitting smoking on their own.
Now it might make sense to raise the smoking age if New York was especially carcinogenic friendly. But it’s not. New York is only average in terms of smoking rates (Kentucky rates highest). In fact, there is, on average, fewer smokers in NYC than there are in the entire rest of the state. The new law does not make sense for New York City or for young people.
But why are young people less interested in smoking than in the past? Some might argue that it’s because there are more taxes and burdens on the tobacco industry, but the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior shows otherwise. They report that antismoking education has had a much greater effect (smoking decline of 20%) than “exacting more responsibility from [the tobacco] industry” (smoking decline of 6%). So the t.r.u.t.h. of it is that laws haven’t really helped people quit —really, education campaigns are what are to thank for fewer younger people smoking.
Millennials are particularly sensitive to health concerns; they are an incredibly risk averse cohort. The more education about the ill-effects of tobacco they get, the less likely they are to smoke. Laws are only marginal in preventing youth smoking habit.
Finally, The New York Times ran an incredibly balanced piece about the smoking ban. They write “thousands of retail jobs could be lost” and that young people are skeptical that the law would work—they already buy cigarettes off strangers if they’re under 18. Frankly, if I had a child who was a smoker, I’d rather have them buying tobacco from a retailer than a stranger off the street. Like prohibition of alcohol or marijuana, it would not surprise me if raising the cigarette age could lead to violence in New York City. Selling drugs to young people, as we already know, is an incredibly lucrative business.
Overall, smoking is not that prevalent in the United States, and fewer people are smoking than ever before. New York City does not have a particularly high smoking problem. Laws and taxes have been proven ineffective to curb smoking, and it could mean hundreds of thousands of lost dollars for New York City’s market. Raising the smoking age in New York City is fraught with good intentions, but will ultimately do far more harm than good.