When California lawmakers voted last week to raise the smoking age from 18 to 21, the debate featured optimistic rhetoric that fines and bans would sharply reduce the number of young adults buying or using tobacco.
This seemingly common-sense approach, however, doesn't work. There is virtually no systematic research showing that increasing the smoking age prevents a teen from picking up the habit. The Institute of Medicine acknowledged as much in a 2015 report, even as it optimistically projected a 12% decline in adult smokers if the minimum legal age for buying tobacco were 21 nationwide.
Meanwhile, considerable evidence warns that such measures have bad effects.
During the 1990s, for example, three communities in Massachusetts implemented a vigorous enforcement campaign against under-age tobacco sales. Advocates promised teen smoking would fall sharply when it became harder to buy cigarettes. High-profile “stings” exposed the stores that were selling to youths.
The result, according to a two-year study by medical school researchers? Failure. Strict enforcement of minimum-age laws did make it so fewer stores sold tobacco to minors. But surveys of high school students in those same communities revealed no effect on the ability of teens to get cigarettes and no reduction in the prevalence of smoking. In fact, there was an increase in teenage smoking compared with nearby communities that hadn't cracked down.
Similar patterns have played out on a national scale. From the late 1970s to the early 1990s, youth smoking was on a slow decline. Then in 1992, Congress passed the Synar Amendment mandating the nation's first legal smoking age of 18. Over the next six years, the decline ended and youth smoking generally leveled off.
Lawmakers mistakenly believe they are protecting youths when they restrict them from (and punish them for) behaviors that are perfectly legal for adults. The new smoking-age law would eliminate charges for buying, receiving or possessing tobacco, but young people would still face penalties for giving tobacco to their peers. And surveys show that most underage smokers get their cigarettes from their friends.
“Status offenses” — crimes based solely on one’s youth — include curfews, restrictive driving laws and smoking and drinking bans. These aren’t harmless laws. In 2014, about 13,000 California youths were arrested for status offenses.
Other countries don’t punish thousands of their teenagers, and it doesn’t seem to cause the bad outcomes that we fear. But U.S. lawmakers just don’t get it.
Status crimes fall into two categories: those that have no discernible effect, and those that may reduce problems among younger ages at the expense of creating worse problems among older ages. For example, initial reports about California's 1998 Teen Driver Safety Act, which
restricts adolescents from transporting other adolescents and driving after midnight, announced reduced fatalities among 16-year-olds. But longer-term research showed the law actually interrupted a previous decline in teenage traffic deaths and led to increased crashes and fatalities among older teens and young adults. Raising drinking ages to 21 likewise won praise for reducing drunk driving fatalities among 18- to 20-year-olds; unfortunately, long-term studies found they increased deaths among 21- to 24-year-olds even more.
The pattern holds everywhere one looks. In 1996, the city of Monrovia passed a daytime youth curfew that won fervent accolades (including from then-President Clinton) for supposedly cutting crime and truancy. But long-term studies found that crime actually fell more during non-curfew hours. Requiring school uniforms, it turns out, does not improve student discipline or academic performance. Mandatory drug testing in schools produces no decline in student drug use.
Rates of teen smoking have been plummeting in California; they were cut in half between 2000 and 2012 with no statutory assistance. If lawmakers really believe new laws are needed to protect young people from tobacco smoke, they should criminalize adult smoking in all spaces, including private homes and vehicles, when children are present (as the U.S. surgeon general recommended in 1986). Raising tobacco taxes also has proven effective in reducing smoking among all ages.
Raising the legal age for buying tobacco, on the other hand, risks interfering with the trend toward less smoking just as the ill-conceived teen driving law interrupted steady declines in teenage traffic deaths. Wisdom requires knowing when to leave young people alone, and smoking is another area where lawmakers should butt out.
Mike Males, senior researcher for San Francisco's Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, has participated in and written extensively on anti-smoking efforts.