Don't Buy the Hype About an Increased Smoking Age

Politicians are using speculative public health studies to restrict individual liberty.


Michael Ocampo/Flickr

When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie signed a bill increasing the smoking age from 19 to 21 last week, he said that the higher age would give young people a "better understanding of how dangerous smoking can be" and that the fewer smokers there are, "the less strain there will be on our health care system."

These claims are ubiquitous among anti-smoking activists, who have gotten some 250 localities and now four states to increase their smoking ages to 21 on the promise that it will slash smoking rates among high schoolers and others under 18. But closer scrutiny suggests that these promises are speculative at best—and that the immediate fiscal consequences of the change will put more strain, not less, on budgets.

"Increasing tobacco age to 21 decreases high school use by about half," says Rob Crane, president of Tobacco 21. As evidence, he cites the example of Needham, Massachusetts, the first city in America to raise its smoking age to 21. The percentage of high schoolers there who reported using tobacco subsequently fell from 35 percent in 2006 to 17 percent in 2014.

Crane's conclusion is undercut by a 2015 Institute of Medicine study (found on Tobacco 21's own website). "Although Needham…has been cited as having seen significant declines in tobacco use and tobacco-related disease, there are no published data on these outcomes," the paper notes. The paper explains that no baseline data exists for Needham prior to its raising the smoking age, and that other factors could have been responsible for the decline.

Indeed, teen smoking has fallen across the United States independently of whether jurisdictions raise their smoking age. In 2005—just as Needham was getting its ban up and running—some 50 percent of American high school seniors had reportedly tried tobacco. By 2015 that figure had fallen to 31 percent according to the University of Michigan's Monitoring the Future study.

The number who have smoked in the last 30 days is down even more, from 23 percent to 11.4 percent, the lowest the rate has ever been in the University of Michigan's data.

Proponents of a higher smoking age—from the American Cancer Society to Vox—fall back on that Institute of Medicine study's conclusion that raising the legal age to 21 will reduce smoking for those aged 15 to 17 by 25 percent.

Yet that number is not based on empirical data of smoking age increases. Little of that exists, given how recent most of these laws are. Instead it relies on complex logic models that try to predict the ability of teenagers to get cigarettes from retailers and older friends and family in a world with a nationwide smoking age of 21, and then tries to extrapolate the rates of smoking and smoking related diseases from those models out to the year 2100.

You don't have to be a hardcore Austrian economist to doubt the efficacy of this approach. Nor do you have to be a doctrinaire libertarian to question the idea of criminalizing the habits of 20-year-old smokers in the hopes of stopping 16-year-olds from doing something that is already illegal.

We do have some pretty good forecasts on one effect the bill is likely to have. Legislative analysis of New Jersey's "raise the age" bill estimates that it will cost the state between $4.5 to $12.5 million this fiscal year in foregone tax revenue. That matches the experience of Oregon and Maine, both of which also passed smoking age increases this year. Maine will lose $4 million a year. Oregon will lose nearly $2 million a year by 2019, with most of that money coming out of public health budgets.

Smoking is risky, but it is victimless and consensual. Individuals are in the best position to determine if that risky behavior is worth it to them. Governments, activists, and speculative public health studies are not.

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  1. For a libertarian, less government revenue is not a good argument against anything.

    1. ^This, thanks

      What’s worse, it feeds states’ lies about how sin taxes aren’t all about filling their coffers. I give it six months before NJ raises the taxes again to make up the difference (enough time for most voters forget the connection).

    2. In general, yes. But unless you are an anarchist, the government needs some revenue from somewhere.

      1. The government can go out and get a REAL job, how about.

      2. That revenue could come from user fees. Want a contract to be covered under civil law? Pay a contract fee. Want your house covered by the fire department? Pay the fire department fee. Want to use this cross-county road? Pay the toll. Want to be protected against aggression by the police? Pay the police fee.

        1. Want to be protected against aggression by the police? Pay the police fee.

          That would certainly make the extortion more obvious.

        2. Drop in a token, go on the swingset. Drop in another token, take a walk. Drop in a token, look at a duck.

        3. It could. But it won’t.

        4. Regarding the police: Financial ability should not dictate whether or not you’re protected by the law.

  2. increase their smoking ages to 21 on the promise that it will slash smoking rates among high schoolers and others under 18

    Huh, are there a lot of kids between 19 and 21 in high school in these states?

    1. They just need to make it a little more illegal and everything will be sunshine and roses.

    2. Maybe the idea is that it will make it harder for high schoolers to get their older friends to buy them smokes.

    3. I guess more of them had older brothers over 18 and fewer have even older brothers over 21. I guess Top. Men. don’t remember how kids got booze, cigs, drugs, Playboys, whatever through their older siblings.

      1. I know that when my brother couldn’t get me cigarettes as a teen we just drank formaldehyde instead. So, good job feds.

    4. “Are there a lot of kids between 19 and 21 in high school in these states.”

      Yes. There’s even a term for them: future police academy graduates.

  3. I don’t support the age change, but you can’t say the data about smoking reduction among teens is iffy while, in the next paragraph, claim that there will be predictable tax revenue reductions — the two things are directly connected.

    1. the two things are directly connected.

      I think the point is that the correlation/connection is, if not iffy, inverse. If the law is successfully enforced/observed (at zero direct cost) tobacco tax revenue will fall. 19-21 yr.-olds who could previously purchase tobacco and contribute to the tax base will, now, be unable to do so. If I spend money to fail to enforce a law or tax, the cost or revenue of the tax will fall while the specific behavior will remain unchanged or even rise. See The Drug War, Prohibition.

    2. No, they aren’t. People who apcannot legally obtain something have an increased incentive to obtain ing in a manner that will also avoid tax.

      1. If they have somebody older buy for them, the tax will still be paid.

  4. Smoking is highly illogical – anybody who smokes must be crazy. Crazy people should be locked up in psychiatric prisons until they are all better and no longer acting irrationally.

    1. No. Don’t go there. The State cannot be trusted to decide whose vices are insanity. Consider the ‘Gay Lifestyle’. I don’t see why being homosexual necessarily means serial unprotected anal sex encounters with comparative strangers, but I’m straight and the Politically Gay keep telling me it does. Such behavior is a damn sight more unhealthy than smoking. Smoking (statistically speaking) takes ten to twenty years to develop life threatening ill-effects. The ‘Gay Lifestyle’? Five to seven.

      Gonna lock up all homosexuals until they take vows of chastity?

      Just. Don’t. Go. There.

  5. the less strain there will be on our health care system.”

    Says the four-hundred pound man, who’s strained our health care system as much as he has strained many unfortunate pieces of furniture.

    Every fat asshole who lectures about smoking should be punched in the throat.

    1. That sounds like a good way to get your fist stuck between some chins.

      Fact: Fist Stuck Between Chins was Eugene’s nickname in college, that time he was secretly dating two Asian women at the same time who turned out to be sisters.

    2. Every fat asshole who lectures about smoking should be punched in the throat.

      Just stab them with a fork so their goo leaks out.

    3. This is one of the main concerns with universal healthcare. If your neighbors are paying for your doctor’s visits they’re going to want a say in how healthy your lifestyle is.

      1. Feature, not a bug.

    4. If you can find it

  6. I’ve seen a lot of people died young of heart attack, despite they didn’t smoke.

    1. There are a lot of risk factors for heart attacks.

      1. Like reading headlines.

  7. Isn’t daily driving a greater health risk at this point? Obviously, with accidental fatalities, I’m near certain the answer is ‘Yes’ but isn’t sitting idle while consuming emissions a health risk on par with the few people who still smoke? We should raise the driving age to 21.

  8. Don’t smokers strain the health care system less because they die younger?

    1. They strain it while they’re dying

      1. Everybody does. End-of-life illnesses are not cheaper for non-smokers. But smokers get around to it sooner, so they cost less in terms of social security and medicare.

  9. I admit, I started smoking at age of 13..LoL.
    But I support age restriction for smoking. At least until they have a job.

    1. Make it so you have to show proof of health insurance before you can purchase tobacco.

  10. These claims are ubiquitous among anti-smoking activists, who have gotten some 250 localities and now four states to increase their smoking ages to 21 on the promise that it will slash smoking rates among high schoolers and others under 18.

    *facepalm* In most locales the old smoking was 18, and people who were under 18 were still able to get a hold of cigarettes. So how in holy fuck will raising the age limit to 21 “slash smoking rates among high schoolers and others under 18?” Do these fuckwits ever think about anything for more than 2 seconds? All this is going to do is increase the number of people smoking illegally, and increase the black market demand for smokes. Which will in turn lead to more Eric Garners. Christ, what a bunch of fucktards.

    1. Statist magic? How do high school kids get booze if the legal age is 21?

    2. This is all about nannying and virtue signaling. Logic matters not.

      1. nannying and virtue signaling

        The government’s real job, IOW.

  11. I would like to take this space to complain about something. I found it much easier to quit smoking than anyone ever let on: “It’s more addictive than heroin!” Fuck the people who said that. I put off quitting for years because of how difficult I was told it would be. I get addicted easily and have little willpower, so I assumed I was stuck with it. Two weeks on nicotine gum and the idea of smoking is gross to me now (except over drinks at a bar).

    If people want to make a difference they should start telling people how easy it is to quit smoking, and the ones who don’t find it easy will feel bad about themselves and keep trying. Otherwise the “it’s worse than heroin” horseshit only gives people an excuse not to try.

    1. How old were you when you started smoking? It seems to be harder to quit the earlier you started.

      1. Around 18 or 19 I think.

        1. That probably helps. I started smoking when I was 13. It’s actually not that hard for me to get past the physical cravings for nicotine. But they psychological attachment is very hard for me to break.

          1. I do hear that a lot. It figured it was mostly about nicotine for me rather than associated habits, which may be why the gum worked.

    2. The thing is, heroin isn’t all that addicting. The hardest thing to kick, or so I was,told in the 1970’s, is a cycle of uppers and downers. Most people would need medical supervision to get free of that. Heroin is something you can go ‘cold turkey’ on. It isn’t pleasant, but it is common.

      1. Yeah, I’ve only been on medically prescribed opioids, which is fun while it lasts but you get over it. I was told that not only are cigarettes the most addictive thing ever, you will always want another one until the day you die.

        I did not completely quit. I go days without one, but if I go have drinks with friends I bring a pack. If something stresses me out at home I have one in the back yard, but rarely more than one a day. And I don’t feel the need to suddenly start sucking down a pack a day again. So let me add to my first rant a rant against all-or-nothingism with potentially addictive substances.

        The point is that the messaging meant to scare people from starting actually prevented me from quitting until I bought some nicotine gum purely on a lark.

        1. So you didn’t actually quit, then. I mean, smoking one a day is much better than a pack a day, but you’re still smoking, so do you really even know how hard it is to completely quit?

          1. I think there needs to be some conditionalization to this. It sounds like he’s certainly not or no longer addicted. The vast majority of his time is likely spent effectively lacking nicotine.

            I’ve always been a “social smoker”. She has asthma and severe allergies so her cognitive dissonance isn’t complete nonsense, but my wife pretty much identified anyone who’d consumed more than a pack in a lifetime a ‘smoker’. To the point where the doctor authoritatively (rightly or wrongly) corrected her when she identified me as a smoker despite having less than one cigar/cigarette per year in the last several years and never exceeding half a pack a month in her presence.

            There were/are those out there who, arguably justifiably, would like to label anyone who’s ever smoked even a single cigarette as a smoker and treat them differently/raise their rates because of it. Pretty hard to quit if a single cigarette ever means you effectively can’t.

            1. My mom is like that. She likes to drink half a beer and smoke a cigarette on a nice summer afternoon and has done so for 50 years or so. But never has habitually smoked.

          2. Every once in a while, Tony gets tantalizingly close to understanding what individual agency and personal responsibility actually mean. Then he runs away, shrieking and giggling.

          3. Indeed. He changed nicotine delivery devices, he didn’t actually kick his nicotine habit.

            I vape, but I sure as fuck didn’t quit my habit.

            Switching delivery methods is easy as hell. Quitting completely? It’s harder. Not impossible, just harder.

            1. I was only using the gum for a couple weeks. I didn’t expect it to work, and I wasn’t really trying. Somehow it reawakened the feeling that cigarettes are gross (except when I’m out drinking, in which case they’re wonderful).

          4. Easier now than when I needed 20 a day. The one thing that I’m having a little trouble shaking is when my mind starts going when I try to sleep. One of the things it starts fixating on is a cigarette before bed. Sometimes when I smoke it it’s nice, but most of the time it’s gross and I have to go wash hands and brush teeth and I regret it (except for the psychological closure).

        2. “The point is that the messaging meant to scare people from starting actually prevented me from quitting”
          You make a good point and I suspect that it’s all by design. The TOP MEN really need to preserve a percentage of the population who will continue to buy cigarettes and pharmaceuticals to preserve their cash flow. If you look at the details of the tobacco settlement you’ll find it was a big win for everybody except smokers. Big tobacco got to raise prices and exclude competitors ( including vapes it would seem), government at all levels has raked in hundreds of billions, big pharma sells all manner of drugs to shamed, taxed and beleaguered smokers most of whom will fail and be back for more, and the propaganda industry gets paid to convince smokers that they are doomed because the children. Every penny of the billions that feed this enormous industry comes from people who purchase cigarettes. Do you think they want you to stop buying cigarettes without paying the vig? Fuck no.

        3. Switch to vaping for your occasional fix — much safer. Nicotine itself isn’t really dangerous (and might even protect against Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases):


  12. When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie signed a bill increasing the smoking age from 19 to 21 last week, he said that the higher age would give young people a “better understanding of how dangerous smoking can be” and that the fewer smokers there are, “the less strain there will be on our health care system.”

    And to think, just yesterday in another thread I said this of Chris Christie:

    Maybe fatso isn’t as bad as I thought. I’m sure he’ll do something soon to reassure us that yes, he really as big an asshole as he appears.

    I guess I was right.

    1. We should probably work on banning Chris Christie from eating… and apparently from governing.

      1. I think he’s in denial about his absurd fatness. Some people are OK joking about being fat, but if someone brings it up to him he always looks at them like “what do you mean?” How you can be in denial when you are roughly as spherical as a human body can possibly get, I don’t understand.

        1. you are roughly as spherical as a human body can possibly get

          Physicists and engineers love him because he simplifies their equations so.

          1. Disagree. There’s the Christie gravitational factor that has to be applied to every study of planetary motion.

            1. His tidal effect is responsible for at least 80% of the observed sea level rise on the east coast over the last several decades.

  13. So, we’re going to tell young people “You can vote at 18. You will be tried as an adult at 18. You can enter into contracts that will ruin you for life with out anyone saying ‘boo’. Oh, and incidently, if you are male, we want you to register for slective,service, just in case we decide to send you to a war. But don’t you dare drink or smoke for three more years, because you aren’t by any means adult enough to run your own life ad pick your own vices.”

    Oh, THAT’S going to end well.

    1. Selective service has never led to death or long-term health problems though, you Kulak you.

      1. tell that to those who were drafted into the war with Vietnam

    2. It has been this way for decades and its not changing any time soon because the demographic affected by it is small and doesn’t vote.

      1. So, we make policy that teaches young adults that flouting the law is fun and cool. Don’t see a downside there!

  14. Either repeal the 26th Amendment or start taking it seriously.

    This business of “We’ll treat you either as a child or an adult, arbitrarily and for our own benefit – not yours” is not just stupid. It’s evil.

    1. I’ve always wondered why 18-20YOs that get picked up for possession underage don’t go to juvie court. If you’re going to call them “minors”, go all the way.

  15. None of this is about health, or safety, or the environment, or any other supposedly sacred thing that we’re supposed to be protecting. These people are all about control. Fundamentally, they get off on telling other people what to do or not do.

    1. These people are all about control. Fundamentally, they get off on telling other people what to do or not do.

      Reminds me of this:

      “Political tags ? such as royalist, communist, democrat, populist, fascist, liberal, conservative, and so forth ? are never basic criteria. The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire. The former are idealists acting from highest motives for the greatest good of the greatest number. The latter are surly curmudgeons, suspicious and lacking in altruism. But they are more comfortable neighbors than the other sort.” – Robert Heinlein

      1. I could have quoted that, but I figured you’re all tired of hearing me quote RAH. Maybe it’s just so deeply ingrained in my psyche at this point that I don’t even recognize when I’m using it, even in poor paraphrase.

      2. I have my own version:

        The history of human society is the history of a succession of self-selected elites who firmly believed that they were placed on Earth by Divine Providence to tell the rest of us what to do. The progress of human society at any point may be measured by the degree to which the common man could tell such people to go climb a tree and make it stick.

  16. You know, there is nothing quite so satisfying as solving a problem that doesn’t exist.

  17. OT: Proggies are still creepy fucks that want to indoctrinate your children

    Now, I have this political obstacle that we need to discuss, in part because the progressives, who far outnumber the regressives in this country, voted against him. …

    [People in Ireland] wanted someone to talk about how they sympathize with the powerlessness, the futility that everybody is feeling right now. So, in these beginning stages, because unfortunately we’re only in the beginning stages, it’s important for me to tell people that they are not alone in their fear, in their actual understanding of what’s happening.

    Jokes on you. “Progressives” ARE the Regressives.

    1. Genius! Why hasn’t anyone thought of this before…?

    2. “People forget we are running up against something that could destroy the human species, and that doesn’t have anything to do with MY opinion. That is Noam Chomsky’s opinion.’
      Oh well in that case…

      1. Noam Chomsky is a linguist. How this makes him an expert on politics forever escapes me…..

  18. So why not raise the smoking age to 40? It would achieve the same goals and do them better. Every seventeen year old interested in Camels or booze has a 21-year-old hookup. No one wants to ask their dad for a cig.

    Why not raise it to 99?

    I’m guessing for Chris Christie the answer has nothing to do with either logic or ethics, just that 39 year olds vote and 18 year olds do not.

  19. If an older age works why stop at 21? Why not 30, 50, or 70 years of age?

  20. The city council of Minneapolis is considering a ban on menthol cigarettes, why? Because they can! Steer clear of the law and order Liberal.

      1. Without looking into the details, quite possibly. If menthol use is a associated with some demographic group, then treating them differently from other cigarettes may be racially motivated.

        Same basic reason why different kinds of cocaine have different punishments.

        1. Somewhere, long ago, I saw some data that indicated menthol cigarettes were more often the choice of people of color. This data indicated also that menthol cigarettes are more dangerous because the menthol masks some of the unpleasantness of inhaling an irritant into your lungs, making users inhale more deeply, thus doing more damage.

          1. People of color have been generationally damaged by those big shiny KOOL billboards that Big Tobacco used to put in the ghetto before right thinking progressives shut that shit down.

            1. Just ask Lando Calresian about Colt 45. Oh no, targeted advertising there must be something racist in that.

        2. Isn’t that sort of the takeaway from Brown v Board of Education – results matter, not motivations? i.e. If it has the effect of being discriminatory, then it is to be disallowed.

      2. Banning menthol cigarettes is racist. Not banning menthol cigarettes when you ban other flavored cigarettes is also racist. Or so I’ve been told.

        1. According to my neighborhood progressive, posting about racists is also racist.

          1. Kinda like the Striesand effect.

        2. How about “Banning a popular drug is counterproductive, as it teaches people to flout that law.”

          Seriously; you’d think the history of the Volstead Act would teach the do-gooders something.

  21. “Smoking is risky, but it is victimless and consensual. Individuals are in the best position to determine if that risky behavior is worth it to them.”
    What? No, don’t be absurd. Between the “addiction” part and the risks/harms being so distant and long-term, individuals are really ducking terrible at assessing the risk/rewards.

    So defend people’s right to fuck themselves over if you want, but don’t try this kind of “people are good at assessing risk/reward” bullshit. It’s obviously untrue.

    1. It’s obviously untrue.

      Absolutely, look at all the democrats getting elected. And look at all the republicans getting elected. And look at all the lawyers getting elected. And look at all these posts.

  22. What got reduced by 25% was the number of kids willing to admit they break the law. On this one particular thing.

    1. I get reports, from time to time, of what goes on in schools. Astonishing how teens are willing to talk to a cranky old geezer. They tell me that it’s common for school administrations to assure kids that the answers to some questionnaire will be ‘completely confidential’, and then turn around and openly single out kids whose answers weren’t ‘right’. So the kids quickly learn to give the ‘right’ answers, whether they are true or not, and that petty bureaucrats lie like they breathe.

      Consequently, I take any report that claims ‘such and such a percent of teens do thus and so’ as utter pigswill.

  23. Chrispy Cream Christy should also apply the smoking rules to his diet since obesity is now more harmful than smoking

    1. Hell, yes. Let’s tax the crap out of food to protect us from ourselves! For the children!!
      Plus we can all get rich as consultants investigating the sudden increase in starvation.

  24. Frankly the data regarding revenue or preventing smoking does not matter and we should avoid getting caught in these traps of throwing studies back and forth. If this cut smoking by 25% and reduced our spending burden on healthcare, we should still oppose it. The point of opposing all kinds of prohibition is so that we aren’t making criminals out of peaceful people, not that there are secret health benefits or reductions in government waste that we aren’t realizing

  25. I’m a resident of New Jersey and know people who were excited for their 19th birthday just for the ability to buy smoking paraphernalia. Now the fat man has gone ahead and ruined their birthdays.

  26. If the boomers keep cracking down on all the liberties that they enjoyed when they were younger, and keep screwing the generations that came after them, you’re going to see GenX and the millennials pull off the biggest granny dump in the history of the country. I hope the boomers like 9 Lives and Meow Mix.

  27. The Tobacco 21 site is rich.

    One, they justify age 21 by citing 600 years of English common law (as if the ability to support a full suit of armor meant anything these days), and then talk about the different ages for different things. Make up your mind already!

    Also, they want to impose 21 on e-cigs, too. Nevermind that e-cigs haven’t been proven to hurt anyone (n.b., there’s some suggestion that they might cause COPD, but since most e-cig users are former burning cig users, who knows).

  28. How’s the drinking age of 21 worked out since it was raised from 18? Sure never hear of teenagers getting booze anymore!

    1. If anything-its had the opposite effect and made booze all the more appealing to teens. The same will happen with tobacco.

  29. If you ban cigarettes today, you will have cigarette cartels firing Type 69 RPGs at you in Acapulco tomorrow.

    1. If you ban cigarettes today, the governments (federal and state) will lose about $100 billion in tax revenue, so it ain’t gonna happen in our lifetime.

  30. The voting age was 21 until 1972. I was only 1 at the time, but it seems to me that in my lifetime, the politicians we elect have gotten progressively shittier, so perhaps its time to raise the voting age back to 21 from 18.

  31. It wouldn’t be insane at all if you could get drafted 3 years before you could buy cigarettes.

  32. I hate smoke! Your sharing is very informative. My injustice 2 🙂

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