Next month, 19- and 20-year-olds will no longer be able to legally buy cigarettes in Princeton. The town’s health board has voted to raise the age for purchasing tobacco products above the New Jersey minimum of 19 to 21.
Will the two years make a difference? A recent report by the Institute of Medicine suggests the stricter standard, if extended across the country, would have substantial public health benefits and work to reduce the number of smokers.
“If the minimum legal age were raised to 21, there would be about 3 million fewer adult smokers in 2060 than is currently projected to be the case,” said University of Virginia law professor Richard Bonnie, who chaired the Institute committee investigating the issue at the FDA’s request.
The group determined that if 21 became the standard minimum age nationwide, there would be 250,000 fewer premature deaths and a total of 4.2 million fewer years of life lost for those born in the first two decades of this century.
While there wasn’t much added benefit from banning sales to those under 25, Bonnie said 21 was far more effective than 19.
“The key factor in that is basically social separation,” he explained. Since so many underage smokers get cigarettes from friends, even a modest reduction in the number of young adults with access to the products can prevent younger users from picking up the habit.
The committee estimated that a minimum age of 21 would cut the number of 15- to 17-year-olds from starting to smoke by 25 percent relative to the federal minimum of 18. A minimum age of 19 resulted in a drop of just 10 percent.
Nearly 90 percent of smokers start before the age of 19.
“I think policymakers are feeling more comfortable with making these kinds of decisions about raising the purchase age,” he said. “I would suspect that, over the next year to 18 months, you’re going to see a lot more states and localities raising the purchase age.”
New Jersey is one of four states to have set the tobacco purchase age at 19. Princeton is the seventh town in the state to raise the standard to 21.