Study Says Raising Tobacco Buying Age to 21 May Reduce Teen Smoking

It already has for a handful of Massachusetts towns.

A new study out of Waltham has a rather straightforward solution for curtailing teen smoking: Don’t let teens buy cigarettes.

The research, done by Waltham’s Education Development Center (EDC) and published in the journal Tobacco Control, suggests that raising the legal tobacco buying age from 18 to 21 will greatly reduce the number of teenagers who smoke.

The study used Needham as a case study, as it is one of a handful of Massachusetts towns and cities, including Cambridge, that has already voluntarily raised its tobacco age minimum to 21. (Waltham, where the study was conducted, just changed its own policy to age 21 in February of this year.) EDC researchers polled 16,000 high school students and tracked under-18 tobacco sales in Needham for the seven years after it implemented its age change in 2005, and found that significantly fewer teenagers were buying and smoking cigarettes by the end of the time period.

Specifically, the percentage of children buying cigarettes fell from 18.4 to 11.6 percent after the age increase went into effect, and the percentage of students who reported smoking in the past 30 days fell from 12.9 to 6.7 percent. Overall, smoking dropped 3 percent. Neighboring towns that did not raise the tobacco age didn’t see changes of the same magnitude in that time period, suggesting that stricter carding and purchasing requirements will prevent teenagers from beginning to smoke.

While raising the smoking age would likely be a controversial decision, it could have a major impact on public health. The CDC says about 90 percent of smokers begin by age 18, so reducing young teenagers’ access to cigarettes could slash tobacco use numbers in the long-term.

The study did not look at the legislation’s effects on e-cigarette use, which the CDC found to be more common in middle and high schoolers than traditional smoking, and which may come with their own set of health risks.