Greer: On smoking age, public health benefits beat overreach worries
Thursday the City Council is scheduled to hold a hearing about whether to raise the city's age for cigarette sales from 18 to 21. Lawmakers in Albany are looking into a similar statewide measure, too.
Eighteen-year-olds can vote for presidents, legislators and mayors. They can go to war across the world. They can get married without their parents' consent. So this proposal has an element of overreach from the local authorities, who appear to be infringing on the rights of citizens and visitors in New York City.
But by increasing the cigarette purchasing age to 21, the city could continue leading the country in new ways to decrease the number of smokers, setting a worthy public health precedent for other cities to follow. By making access to cigarettes more difficult, these new rules could save lives.
The American Cancer Society estimated in 2011 that 20 percent of adults in the United States describe themselves as smokers. Nationwide, roughly 18 percent of high school students are smokers. Although the number of smokers overall has fallen since the late 1990s, the number of high school-age smokers continues to rise. Raising the age limit wouldn't completely erase the problem of young people smoking, of course, but it would surely serve as a deterrent by making it harder to buy cigarettes.
Nearly all first use of tobacco takes place before high school graduation. A 2012 Surgeon General's Report found that nearly 9 out of 10 adult smokers began by age 18, and that very few people pick up the habit after age 25.
So why not delay young people's easy access to cigarettes for a slightly longer period? The likelihood that they will go on to become adult smokers will then decrease. The American Cancer Society has found a correlation between beginning smoking as a young person and smoking as an adult -- and a greater inability to quit. Additional barriers could forestall experimentation, and possibly prevent a life of addiction.
The age hike may seem Draconian at first. But if this new law were to make it even just a little more difficult to start a deadly, addictive habit, New York will be a healthier place for it.
Christina M Greer, an assistant professor at Fordham University, can be reached at @Dr_CMGreer.