Everyone knows the dangers of smoking.
But those dangers can be mitigated by delaying the age that people start smoking. Doctors agree that reducing access to smoking products for young people can prevent them from becoming chronic smokers, or prevent them from ever smoking at all.
So when Gov. Ned Lamont signed a bill on June 18 raising the smoking age from 18 to 21, health professionals and school administrators praised the change.
“Cigarette smoking is associated with a wide variety of health problems,” said Dr. Stephen Caminti, who leads Bristol Health’s pulmonary medicine program.
Smoking causes around 4,000 deaths from cardio vascular disease a year and 150,000 deaths from lung cancer, the doctor said.
“It’s the number one cause of death nationwide,” he added.
On average, smokers die 10 years earlier than people who don’t smoke, said the CDC.
One of the best ways to stop people from ever picking up that first cigarette is to make sure young people don’t have access to it. The increase in age helps that.
Around 95% of smokers start before the age of 20, said Caminti. The Institute of Medicine concludes that nearly 100% of people smoked their first cigarette before 26.
That three year difference from 18 to 21 has a big impact.
A 2015 report by the Institute of Medicine said the age change could reduce smoking by 12%.
“In general, if you don’t start by the age of 20, you don’t start,” said Caminti.
The doctor mentioned that many of his patients say they started smoking at 14 or 15.
“Stopping cigarette smoking is incredibly difficult,” he said. Most people stop five times before they’re able to finally stop completely.
“It’s incredibly addictive,” Caminti added. In addition to consuming nicotine, people develop smoking as a habit, and habits are hard to break. Delaying the age people start smoking can ensure that a habit doesn’t form.
The CDC reports that “each day, about 2,000 people younger than 18 years smoke their first cigarette” and that “over 300 people younger than 18 years become daily cigarette smokers.”
The increase in the number of teens vaping has been on the mind of many doctors. The age change also applies to e-cigarettes and vaping products.
According to the 2017 Youth Tobacco Survey by the State Department of Public Health, 14.7% of high school students used e-cigarettes, an increase from 7.2% in 2015.
“The long-term risk of vaping is unclear,” said Caminti, adding that he thought it was “wishful thinking” that vaping is completely safe.
“There are chemicals that have shown to be detrimental,” he said, including one chemical that may cause lung disease.
Some claim vaping can help people quit regular cigarettes, and eventually stop them from smoking all together.
“I have a hard time believing that,” said the doctor. “It’s such a new problem.”
When it comes to teen vaping, Caminti said a raise in the smoking tax could be beneficial in addition to the age change. Teenagers don’t have a lot of money, so if cigarettes were more expensive, they may be less likely to buy them.
“There is some societal benefit to raising cigarette taxes,” he said.
The cigarette tax, education and other factors have led to progress.
“The smoking rate has declined sharply,” said the doctor.
Caminti does have some reservations about how effective the law will be.
“It’s clear the law isn’t being enforced at 18,” he said. “Prohibition has never worked for anything.”
However, one thing the law does accomplish is making smoking less socially acceptable by making it illegal for anyone under 21 to smoke.
For Caminti, in the end it comes down to rights: the right to smoke or the right to breathe clean air, and for his patients with lung disease or breathing problems to go to places without fear of breathing smoke.
“You have a right to breathe clean air,” he said.
Michelle Jalbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.