Which state just raised the legal smoking age to 21?

Which state just raised the legal smoking age to 21?

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed a law Friday raising the state’s minimum age to buy tobacco products and electronic smoking devices to 21 years old, up from 19.

The measure gives “young people more time to develop a maturity and better understanding of how dangerous smoking can be and that it is better to not start smoking in the first place,” Christie, whose mother died from the effects of tobacco use, said in a statement. He cited the strain on the health care system caused by tobacco-related illnesses as justification for the move.

In 2013, New York City raised its legal smoking age to 21. Hawaii followed suit in 2015, and California did the same a year later — the only two states where the smoking age is 21.

Similar laws await the signatures of Governors Kate Brown of Oregon and Paul LePage of Maine, having passed both houses in each of those states.

“The brains of teens are not fully developed,” says Dr. Tony Hampton, a family medicine physician with Advocate Health Care, impacting their ability to make rational decisions. “That combined with the lack of life experience which also impacts their judgment, it makes sense to delay access to addictive drugs or substances which could negatively impact the rest of their lives.”

Dr. Hampton notes some research has found nicotine to be as addictive as heroin, cocaine or amphetamines. “If I would not allow my [own] young adults to use these addictive drugs,” he says, “I can’t justify allowing access to a more addictive drug – tobacco – at a young age.”

The University of Rochester Medical Center summarizes how to understand the teenage brain: “Adults think with the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s rational part. This is the part of the brain that responds to situations with good judgment and an awareness of long-term consequences. Teens process information with the amygdala. This is the emotional part…That’s why when teens experience overwhelming emotional input, they can’t explain later what they were thinking. They weren’t thinking as much as they were feeling.”

Raising the minimum age to 21 nationwide would lead to almost 250,000 fewer premature deaths and 45,000 fewer lung cancer deaths among people born between 2000 and 2019, according to a 2015 study by the National Institute of Medicine.

The New Jersey Law, which goes into effect November 1, institutes fines against anyone who sells, gives or offers tobacco products to someone younger than 21.

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  1. Oh please. The human brain isn’t fully formed until age 25 or 26. Why not start then?

    Or, why not treat adults like, well, adults? At 18 (17 with parental permission), people are old enough to get themselves blown up in war, but they’re not old enough to smoke or drink? Please.

  2. Why is it that so many adults forget what it was like to be a teenager? Upping the legal age isn’t going to stop a teen from doing what is forbidden to them. That’s the reason why they usually start – a way to rebel from authority. And as long as movies and TV show their characters smoking, there will be kids watching and wanting to emulate. Unfortunately for the kids, once they are hooked on nicotine, it’s very difficult to get that monkey off their back.

  3. This is preposterous. I’m against the drinking age being so high because they make men register for the draft at age 18. I can fight and die for my country as a child but I cannot make the choice to drink or smoke? I don’t advocate for people smoking, but when are we going to take the training wheels off? When is a legal adult allowed to be a legal adult? Is there anyone in the United States who believes that smoking is good for you or healthy? I can’t think of a single person who would suggest such a thing. The only other thing I can say about this stupidity is that most of the heavy smokers that I know are people who started smoking in their early teens… long before they were legally allowed to buy them. So, what do these states plan to do, fine adults who smoke when their kids get into their cigarettes? Treat them like guns and make people lock up their cigarettes in a safe so kids can’t get to them? Between the minimum age to buy tobacco products, the extra federal tax, the extra state tax, the extra city taxes, and the constant barrage billboards, ads and protests you would think that people would quit smoking but they haven’t so the idea that this will be an effective measure for reducing the number of smokers is foolish. If all that stuff hasn’t worked the evidence suggests that this will not work either.

  4. Dr. Tony Hampton

    I definitely understand your perspective. Many people at the age of 18 are in theory mature enough to manage their decisions. As a healthcare professional, however, my recommendations are rooted in evidence based medicine and studies do support allowing young adults more time for brain development before they make decision which may negatively impact their lives. Cigarette smoking is the number one cause of preventable death and should be avoided if at all possible. Thanks again for your perspective.

About the Author

Adam Mesirow
Adam Mesirow

Adam Mesirow, health enews managing editor, is media relations director of Advocate Aurora Health. Securing high-profile media placements for more than a decade, he loves to tell a good story. Adam earned a Bachelor’s degree in Public Policy from the University of Michigan. He lives in Chicago and enjoys playing sports, reading TIME magazine and a little nonsense now and then.