What the numbers tell us about raising the legal age to buy cigarettes

As you may have seen, the Portland City Council on Monday night took the first step on a path toward potentially raising the legal age to buy tobacco products — from the current age of 18 up to 21.

While it’s not a done deal yet — the proposal still has to get through council subcommittee deliberations before the larger council will have a shot at final approval — this is a measure that’s been implemented by about 140 other cities around the country.

It’s not exactly a longshot proposal in a city that has over the years been aggressive about limiting smoking. Since 2008, the city has passed at least two ordinances restricting places where people can smoke and another resolution reiterating that discarding butts on city streets can draw $100 fines.

With this officially becoming a trend, it’s worth asking the question: Does raising the purchasing age matter?

After all, the U.S. Surgeon General has found that about nine out of every 10 smokers in the country took their first drag before the age of 18. If smokers are largely starting up at age 15, 16 or 17 anyway, what difference would it make that the legal age to buy tobacco products is 21 instead of 18?

By some estimates, a big difference.

The Institute of Medicine concluded in a report last fall that by increasing the legal age of buying tobacco products to 21, governments could reduce the “initiation rate” among 15-17-year-olds by 25 percent.

Institute of Medicine

Institute of Medicine

But why is that, if aspiring smokers have no regard for the legal age anyway?

The answer is that they won’t have as much access to buyers.

“Right now, with 18 as the age, a 16-year old could easily come into contact with an 18-year old, but they’re much less likely to come into contact with a 21-year old,” Robin Mermelstein, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago, told the Wall Street Journal.

Because it takes less nicotine to get a teenager addicted than an adult, cutting potential smokers (or chewers or whatever) off when they’re younger, in many cases, could be expected to prevent them from ever becoming addicted, the Surgeon General argues.

So raising the age of buying tobacco is not just about making smokers who are destined to be lifelong smokers wait a couple years to get started. It’s about preventing them from ever starting, or at least giving them a better shot at making it a passing phase in their 20s instead of a lasting addiction.

Let’s do some back-of-the-napkin math to figure out how changing the legal age might play out in Portland.

According to some admittedly dated city statistics, about 14.7 percent of Portland residents smoke, which works out to about 9,750 of the more than 66,000 Portlanders.

About 8,775 of them started before the age of 18, if the Surgeon General’s percentage can be believed. And by raising the age to 21, Portland can be expected to prevent roughly 2,200 of those people from initiating during that particularly sensitive 15-17-year-old age bracket, using the Institute of Medicine numbers.

Serial number-cruncher WalletHub estimated the per-person cost of smoking in Maine to be just under $33,000 every year, a figure that includes not only the direct cost of over-the-counter cigarettes, but increased medical expenses and even lost investment opportunities.

Multiplying that number by 2,200 puts about $72.5 million back into the Portland economy per year (that number is very rough, but it does factor in an assumed reduction in cigarette sales, which is economic activity, like it or not).

Of course, there are a lot of variables that are hard to predict. How many young people between the ages of 18 and 21 would drive over to South Portland or another neighboring community to buy tobacco products legally there?

In part because the trend toward raising the legal buying age at the municipal level is recent — most of those local measures around the country have been passed within the last year — there’s not much data around about the impacts of those specific ordinances.

But one case study is Needham, Massachusetts, the 29,000-person town that is credited as being the first to push the age up to 21 when it passed the measure in 2005. Despite the availability of cigarettes for 18-year-olds across town borders, Needham officials have reported their local smoking rate dropped by 47 percent in the half decade or so after increasing the legal purchasing age.

At the national level — where a legal age increase would take an act of Congress — the Institute of Medicine report estimated that putting the age at 21 would cut the number of American smokers by 12 percent and reduce premature deaths among those born between 2000 and 2019 by 249,000, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Seth Koenig

About Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.