California just became the second state to raise the minimum age requirement for purchasing tobacco products to 21. Per usual, e-cigarette sales are also affected by the new rule even though they do not contain tobacco. The obvious intention of the new legislation is to prevent youth from smoking; however, there is a debate emerging over whether such laws will help protect minors who have switched from smoking to vaping, or if it will drive them back to tobacco.
E-cig Laws: Minimum Age to Buy E-cigs on the Rise
As of May 4, 2016, two states and more than 100 cities and counties have raised the minimum age requirement for buying tobacco and vapor products to 21. In January 2016, Hawaii became the first state to do so, with New Jersey coming in at a close second; however, the legislation was vetoed by Governor Chris Christie in January of 2016. Young adult vapers in California were not as lucky, as Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill to raise the minimum age to 21 on May 4, 2016.
Could Raising the Legal Smoking/Vaping Age Cause More Harm than Good?
The CDC and other health organizations have raised concerns over the increase in youth vaping rates and claim e-cigs could serve as a gateway to tobacco, despite the fact that youth tobacco smoking rates have declined in tandem with the rise of vaping. This inverse relationship implies that the CDC may have it backward: instead of causing young people to take up smoking, e-cigs may be helping youth who already smoke quit the deadly habit.
Making it harder for teens to buy cigarettes seems like a noble cause, but a recent Cornell University study suggests that raising the vaping age increases teen smoking. Looking at data from states that imposed age restrictions on purchasing e-cigs between 2007 and 2013, researchers noticed an 11.7 percent rise in teen smoking after the e-cig age constraints took effect. In their report, the authors posit that e-cigs were serving as a tobacco substitute for some youth. Without easy access to e-cigs, these teens turned back to tobacco, which is generally easier for youth to obtain.
The Cornell study echoes another conducted by the Yale School of Public Health, which also found that smoking rates among 12-17-year-olds rose in states that banned e-cigarette sales to minors. Dr. Michael Pesko, an assistant professor of healthcare policy and research at Weill Cornell Medicine, issued a statement about the Hawaii law in which he said, “Results from this study suggest it would have been better from a public health standpoint to increase the purchasing age to 21 only for cigarettes, and not e-cigarettes.”
Are E-cigs Helping Smokers Quit?
For many years, advocates of tobacco harm reduction have viewed vaping as a safer alternative to tobacco, citing research that suggests e-cigs are more effective in helping people kick their tobacco habit than quitting cold turkey or using nicotine replacement therapies like gums and patches.
On April 28, just days before the FDA released its final ruling deeming e-cigs as tobacco products, the UK’s Royal College of Physicians released a 200-page report titled “Nicotine without smoke: Tobacco harm reduction” which stated their view on e-cigs as a safer alternative to tobacco with great potential in helping smokers quit.
Despite the evidence coming out of the UK, local and state governments in the US continue to crackdown on e-cigs with the implementation of higher age restrictions based on the claim that it is meant to protect the youth. While we can all agree that youth shouldn’t be encouraged to take up vaping just to do it, the idea that is allowing youth who already smoke to switch to vaping should not be dismissed.