On March 1 San Francisco City Supervisors unanimously voted to change the legal age to purchase tobacco products from 18 years of age to 21. Boston, New York City, and the state of Hawaii have already raised the minimum age for tobacco sales to 21. Supervisor Scott Wiener, who took the lead on passing this piece of legislation, argues that this will help dissuade those under the age of 21 from becoming lifelong smokers. Opponents of the new law, largely tobacco industry members, argue that California law, which has an age minimum of 18, should overrule any municipal law regarding the issue. However, unless California state law wants to step in, the change will go into effect on June 1 of this year.
Changing the minimum age limitation from 18 to 21 years of age is a well intentioned attempt to curb the number of young smokers in the city. Consumption of tobacco in any form has been proven to be harmful for decades, since the first report of the Surgeon General’s Advisory Committee on Smoking and Health was published in 1964. We all know it causes multiple types of cancer, including cancers in the lungs, stomach, liver, esophagus, and larynx; it also can lead to chronic bronchitis, stroke, heart disease, and many other health risks.
So for many smokers under the age of 21 who have considered ending their tobacco consumption but needed a final push to quit, this law may just be the ticket. However, another well-known fact about tobacco is that it is a highly addictive substance. What about the kids who cannot seem to break their addictions before this new ordinance goes into effect?
According to a 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, approximately 200,000 children under the age of 18 become daily smokers every year. Once the minimum tobacco purchase age is lifted to 21, the pool of kids who would want to illegally acquire tobacco products would only increase. Young folks attempting to acquire tobacco illegally can be compared to the kids under 21 who try to acquire alcohol. Some minors get an illegal fake ID and use that to get into bars or buy alcohol, or they ask friends who are of legal age to purchase alcohol for them. Many college students do this now, and those who wish to acquire tobacco after the new law is in place could follow the same tactics.
It is interesting to consider how this law would affect smoking culture at USF. The smoking garden is rarely empty and many students under the age of 21 here participate in smoking. How would this law be enforced on campus? Would Public Safety be checking IDs in the garden or anywhere a student is seen with cigarettes?
While we applaud San Francisco for trying to make the city a healthier place for its residents, this law may not be the most effective way to do so. Changing laws alone will not stop young people from consuming tobacco, as the overarching culture of smoking and the power of the tobacco industry must be changed as well.