AT CHESHIRE Medical Center, I provide smoking cessation counseling and resources to patients and to community members throughout Cheshire County.
I’m reminded every day and with every patient I counsel of the toll tobacco takes on our country and, in particular, the state of New Hampshire.
Each year, about 1,900 Granite Staters die from smoking-related illnesses. We are also seeing greater concern among smokers in the community about the resulting health risks should they be infected by the coronavirus. A recent study of the coronavirus outbreak in China found that coronavirus patients who smoked were more than twice as likely as those who didn’t to have severe infections from COVID-19. In addition, some states like Massachusetts have issued advisories about the risks associated with vaping and exacerbation of coronavirus infection.
At the beginning of the year, the federal government raised the tobacco purchasing age to 21.
This became the law of the land effective immediately. However, the current state law is still set at age 19. The discrepancy creates a gap with enforcement initiatives at the state and local level. New Hampshire must take this opportunity to increase the age for tobacco sales to help state and local authorities enforce the new federal law and keep our youth healthy and safe from the harms of deadly substances.
About three out of 10 high school students report using some type of tobacco product, including e-cigarettes, in the past year. The Centers for Disease Control has projected that about 22,000 New Hampshire kids who are now alive will die from smoking over their lifetimes.
These facts underscore the importance of putting youth tobacco control policies in place, like Tobacco 21. Tobacco 21 is among a number of proven public health strategies to reduce youth tobacco use by supporting prevention, health development, and long-term health and safety.
Why is a NH Tobacco 21 policy a good idea? There are a number of reasons:
First, we know increasing the tobacco age will help reduce the chances of lifelong nicotine addiction. Nine out of 10 adult smokers started smoking before age 21.
Second, we can protect developing brains. Brain development continues until about the age of 25 and teens and young adults are vulnerable to the effects of nicotine and nicotine addiction, which can result in adverse consequences on cognition and emotional regulation.
Third, raising the age to 21 would have a real impact on smoking rates and premature deaths. A report by the Institute of Medicine found that Tobacco 21 could decrease smoking initiation by about 25 percent among youth 15 to 17 years old, decrease smoking rates by about 12 percent over time, and reduce smoking-related deaths by around 10 percent.
Fourth, tobacco companies heavily target young adults ages 18 to 21 through marketing . Why? Because this is the critical time that young smokers transition into adult, regular smokers. Tobacco companies have acknowledged that if they fail to attract an individual before they turn 21, it is unlikely they ever will.
Fifth, in 1988, when all states increased their legal alcohol drinking age to 21, the public health benefits were significant. Survey data showed that past month and binge drinking among high school seniors decreased by 22 percent between 1982 and 1998, while youth drinking driver involvement in fatal crashes decreased by 61 percent over this same time period. In fact, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that, since 1975, increasing the minimum drinking age has saved more than 21,000 lives.
Sixth, even the majority of smokers support Tobacco 21 policies. Polls have shown that eight in 10 adult smokers support these policies. In fact, each year about half of smokers try to quit and seven out of 10 smokers want to quit. What’s also striking is that adolescents want to quit smoking too; eight out of 10 between 11 and 19 who smoke are thinking about quitting and three out of four have made a serious attempt to quit in the past year.
And, seventh, many argue that if you are old enough to go to war, you should be old enough to smoke. However, many senior U.S. military leaders recognize the harms of tobacco for our troops. Tobacco use harms military preparedness, threatens the health and fitness of our national forces, and compromises the health of those who put their lives on the line to defend our country. According to Department of Defense data, tobacco use costs the military about $1.6 billion annually in lost productivity and healthcare expenses.
For these reasons, a common-sense approach to protecting the health of our children from the harms of tobacco is needed. The time is now here for a statewide Tobacco 21 policy. What are we waiting for?