A high school student waits to light up in Santa Monica. Officials in New… (Los Angeles Times )
New York City officials, with the blessing of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, announced Monday that they will seek to raise the minimum age to buy tobacco products in the city’s five boroughs from 18 to 21 years of age.
Although the proposed rule might seem to target the older teenagers who will no longer be able to buy cigarettes, much of its effect would trickle down to high school students 14 to 17 years old, said John Billimek, a health policy researcher at the UC Irvine School of Medicine.
“Most kids that age are rarely come across 21-year-olds. But they see 18-year-olds all the time,” he said. “Now it’s going to be a lot harder to find someone on your campus who can give you cigarettes.”
Curbing smoking among younger kids is desirable, Billimek added, because the earlier people pick up the habit, the longer they're likely to continue smoking throughout their lives.
According to a release issued by the New York City Council on Monday, most people who are not smokers by 21 are not likely to start at all -- and most smokers in New York started smoking before that age. The city cited estimates that raising the smoking age could reduce the smoking rate among 18- to 21-year-olds by 55% and among 14- to 17-year-olds by about two-thirds. It would still be legal for people younger than 21 to possess or use tobacco products.
More than 8 million people live in New York City, where the youth smoking rate is estimated to have held steady at 8.5% since 2007. Among public high school students in the city, 20,000 are believed to be smokers, according to the City Council statement.
“By raising the legal purchase age to 21, we will prevent a generation of New Yorkers from becoming addicted to smoking,” said NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley on Monday.
Billimek, who has researched how tobacco policy influences smoking rates and who spoke with New York City health department staffers as they were thinking about their plans, said that very few places -- and no large cities -- had tried raising the smoking age so high. But he said that having a large and visible municipality like New York experiment with the new rules was "exciting" because it could encourage other places to follow suit.
"If it's a success in New York City, I wouldn't be surprised if a place like Los Angeles tries the same thing," he said.
For more on youth smoking, read the 2012 U.S. Surgeon General’s report “Preventing Tobacco Use Among Youth and Young Adults,” or this FDA site about youth smoking.