This is the second of a two-part series on an increase in the smoking age.
NEW BRITAIN - Everyone knows the dangers of smoking.
But those dangers can be mitigated by delaying the age that people start smoking. Doctors agree that reducing access to smoking products for young people can prevent them from becoming chronic smokers, or prevent them from ever smoking at all.
So when Gov. Ned Lamont signed a bill on June 18 raising the smoking age from 18 to 21, health professionals and school administrators praised the change.
“Increasing the smoking age is the correct move to make,” said Leonard Corto, District Coordinator of Health, Physical Education and Athletics at the New Britain Board of Education. “It’s much easier to prevent kids and young people from smoking.”
Smoking hurts student athletes. Not smoking means students will have more endurance and will be able to do a sport or activity for a lot longer, said Corto.
“Obviously, your cardio vascular system is going to work a heck of a lot better,” he added.
Dr. Michael McNamee, doctor of pulmonary medicine and intensive care at The Hospital of Central Connecticut in New Britain, agreed.
“The American Medical Association definitely supports raising the age to 21,” he said.
Studies, like a 2015 report by the Institute of Medicine, have shown that the age change could reduce smoking by 12%, said McNamee.
Though the change is only a three year difference, it has a large impact because most smokers start young. Around 90% of smokers start before the age of 21, said McNamee. The Institute of Medicine concludes that nearly 100% of people smoked their first cigarette before 26.
“It’s a teenage problem,” said McNamee. “I think all physicians believe (tobacco products) should be limited.”
Increasing the age to 21 means that younger teens will have less access because they’re less likely to have friends who are older to buy them tobacco products, said McNamee.
“Teenage brains are still developing and are more susceptible to nicotine,” he added. Nicotine abuse can lead to anxiety, depression and other substance abuse.
McNamee said the prevalence of smoking has decreased. When he started practicing medicine, 50% of men and 25% of women smoked. Now, about 17% of Americans smoke.
The U.S. exports a lot of the cigarettes it manufactures. Sales within the country have decreased.
Despite the drop, young people are still becoming smokers. The CDC reports that “each day, about 2,000 people younger than 18 years smoke their first cigarette” and that “over 300 people younger than 18 years become daily cigarette smokers.”
“We have to be careful it doesn’t go back up,” McNamee said.
If the number of people smoking goes up, so does the number of smoking-related diseases.
“Over 80% of lung cancer is due to smoking,” said the doctor. “If people didn’t smoke, 80% of lung cancer would be gone.”
On average, smokers die 10 years earlier than people who don’t smoke, said the CDC.
That’s why to McNamee, the age change is so important.
“You would think 20 to 30 years from now these diseases would disappear,” he said.
Surprisingly, tobacco and vaping companies are supporting the change.
McNamee said they’ve changed their tune after many years of opposing the legislation because: one, it’s a good public relations strategy and two, companies can get involved in how the law is created.
When Big Tobacco gets involved in lawmaking, it usually puts in exemptions to the age change.
In Texas, the industry put in a provision that if you’re in the military you can buy smoking products at 18.
“It’s wrong to say that people who are serving our country, we’re not going to help prevent them from becoming chronic smokers,” McNamee said.
The increase in the number of teens vaping has been on the mind of many doctors. The age change also applies to e-cigarettes and vaping products.
According to the 2017 Youth Tobacco Survey by the State Department of Public Health, 14.7% of high school students used e-cigarettes, an increase from 7.2% in 2015.
“It’s a mixed bag,” said McNamee. “It’s still going to addict you to nicotine.”
The doctor said that while some data suggests e-cigarettes may help people to quit smoking, there’s other chemicals in vapes that may be harmful.
Also, some evidence suggests that teens who vape may go on to smoke cigarettes, he added.
Moreover, vaping companies market the product in an appealing way, which makes smoking more socially acceptable for young people. The age change could reinforce to teens that it is not acceptable.
McNamee said after the big tobacco settlement, some states doubled down on public service announcements to encourage people to stop smoking or to never start. Connecticut, however, used their money for other things.
TV, movies and commercials no longer portray smoking as glamorous, which has also helped the decrease.
“They can’t do that as easily as they used to,” he said.
For McNamee, education is the key to preventing smoking. And the more time young people have time to learn about the dangers of smoking before they have access to it, the better off they will be.
“Once your brain matures, you understand enough that you won’t want to start smoking,” said McNamee.
Michelle Jalbert can be reached at email@example.com.