After portions of its cities were bombed to rubble and its coffers drained, Britain endured a long spell of austerity after World War II, with everything from fruit to fuel subject to rationing.
There was one commodity, though, that was available in abundance in those gray, drab days – cigarettes. An astonishing 82% of British men smoked in 1948. Given the ubiquity of tobacco and the social acceptance of its use, there were almost certainly hordes of adolescents who mimicked their elders and took up the habit. And many of them undoubtedly ended up having years sliced off their lives as a result.
To be sure, teenagers in the United States, Canada and other parts of the world started puffing away enthusiastically in the middle part of the last century, at a juncture when the deadly consequences of smoking were not yet fully understood. The number of people in the developed world who smoke has been steadily declining over the last several decades, and in the United States, just a little bit more than 5% of teenagers now smoke.
That’s good, but that’s also hundreds of thousands of people who will struggle to shake nicotine later on, or fall victim to cancer, emphysema, heart disease or premature death.
In recent days, Gov. Tom Wolf and the Legislature have taken steps to bring that number down. Both the House and the Senate approved a measure that would raise the age at which people can purchase tobacco from 18 to 21, and Wolf signed it. The new age limit also applies to vaping products and e-cigarettes. The sole exceptions are for service members and veterans. The new rule goes into effect July 1.
Pennsylvania is now the 19th state to raise the legal age to purchase tobacco products, and studies suggest it will be effective in reducing the number of adolescent smokers. By raising the legal age, the ability of children who are aged 14, 15 or 16 to get cigarettes from their older peers will be significantly diminished, as will their ability to use fake IDs and buy cigarettes illegally. And if children are diverted from smoking before they reach their 20s, the odds that they will start using tobacco are small. In addition, the U.S. Surgeon General has reported that it becomes more likely someone will develop lung cancer based on how long they have smoked, rather than the number of cigarettes they consume every day.
More than 30 years ago, states raised their legal drinking ages from 18 to 21, and one study found that binge drinking among high school seniors decreased by 22% from 1982 to 1998, and the involvement of young people in drunken driving accidents tumbled by 61% in the same period. Increasing the age at which one can legally purchase cigarettes, and enforcing those laws, will likely have similar public health benefits.
When it comes to smoking, teenagers are vulnerable because their brains are still developing and their ability to appreciate the long-term ramifications of their decisions is limited. They are also the object of aggressive marketing by cigarette companies that see them as replacements for smokers who have died. In Pennsylvania, lawmakers have taken a valuable step to protect them.