Raising the legal age for smoking not so crazy after all

Armchair Mayor
By Mel Rothenburger
January 24, 2017 - 3:00pm

KAMLOOPS — Raising the age for legal smoking from 19 to 21 isn’t as crazy and pointless as it sounds.

Health Minister Terry Lake has floated the idea, saying the longer people are legally not supposed to smoke, the better the chances they’ll never start.

The seemingly obvious problem with his theory is that no matter what the law says, people are going to start smoking when they want to. That’s why anti-tobacco campaigns focus heavily on trying to convince young people not to get hooked on it.

StatsCan numbers show that one in 10 of 15- to 17-year-olds smoked in 2011. That’s 121,000 of them. However, there was a substantial decline in smoking in the 15- to 19-year-old age range.

That shows, obviously, that we’ve been heading the right direction, yet there are still far too many young people who take up smoking. Quitting smoking, or not taking it up in the first place, is the single most important thing people can do to live longer. Non-smokers gain about three years of life, while the heaviest smokers lose about nine.

Newer statistics from a report called "Tobacco Use in Canada: Patterns and Trends, 2015," showed that 4.2 million Canadians were smokers as of that year. Smoking was highest among young adults aged 25-34 and 20-34, at around 18 per cent.

In the 15-19 age group, about 11 per cent were smokers, with 19-year-olds at 18.5 per cent.

But does raising the legal age help? An American study by the Institute of Medicine looked at the effects of minimum legal ages for smoking of 19, 21 and 25. The resulting report, “Public Health Implications of Raising the Minimum Age of Legal Access to Tobacco Products,” found, not surprisingly, that the initiation age of tobacco use is critical.

“Among adults who become daily smokers, approximately 90 per cent report first use of cigarettes before reaching 19 years of age, and almost 100 per cent report first use before age 26.”

In looking at jurisdictions with higher legal ages, the report concluded that increasing the legal age likely prevents or delays initiation into tobacco by adolescents and young adults.

“The age group most impacted will be those age 15 to 17 years.”

So wouldn’t making the legal age 25 instead of 21 be even better? Probably not, the study says, because it’s a case of diminishing returns. Most underage users rely on family and friends to get tobacco, and the higher you raise the age the less of a factor that is.

It also has to do with maturing of the brain. “The parts of the brain most responsible for decision making, impulse control, sensation seeking, and susceptibility to peer pressure continue to develop and change through young adulthood, and adolescent brains are uniquely vulnerable to the effect of nicotine.”

Bottom line: the report says raising the legal age will likely lead to a reduction in smoking-related deaths.

So, Lake just might be on to something.