Steven Senne, AP
In this April 11, 2018, file photo, a high school student uses a vaping device near a school campus in Cambridge, Mass. U.S. health officials are scrambling to keep e-cigarettes away from teenagers amid an epidemic of underage use. But doctors face a new dilemma: there are few effective options for weening young people off nicotine vaping devices like Juul.

Smoking tobacco is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, with almost half a million people dying annually as a result, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Researchers have long known that tobacco addictions start young, with more than 90 percent of daily smokers reporting they had their first cigarette by age 18. This compelling data should be rigorously examined by Utah state representatives as they face a vote on bill HB324, which would gradually raise the legal age to purchase both tobacco and electronic cigarettes in Utah from 19 to 21.

The most potent response to the argument that the smoking age should be increased is that kids will get their hands on it anyway. It’s true that for the majority of the past century, recreational tobacco use has extended well below the legal smoking age thanks to an illicit market, or simply because youths share among their peers. However, a report published by the National Institute for Health cited research from New York state officials that concluded raising the smoking age would result in a 67 percent reduction of smoking among those ages 14 to 17.

At the moment, some seniors in high school around the country are legally able to purchase and share tobacco products among their friends and classmates. Utah's legal smoking age is 19, which all but eliminates high schoolers from legally obtaining tobacco, but increasing the legal age limit would nevertheless make it significantly harder for youths and young adults to get their hands on cigarettes.

The bill also applies to electronic cigarette use, or vaping, which has developed into something of a teenage health crisis. One-third of American high school seniors report having vaped, and evidence suggests teenage vaping has led to a considerable increase of youths taking up traditional tobacco products.

The harm of these devices, of course, is the effects of nicotine and other drugs on the developing brain. Nicotine consumption in adolescence can harm the parts of the mind that control attention, learning, mood and impulse control, according to the CDC. It’s also associated with a higher risk of drug addiction later in life.

Since the brain doesn't fully develop until age 25 or so, increasing the age at which adults can purchase and use these products seems a reasonable barrier to mitigate the long-lasting harm they invariably cause.

26 comments on this story

The data gathered by researchers across the country and by other state legislatures should provide compelling evidence for Utah representatives to consider as they evaluate HB324. Representatives should think proactively about how to not only address the long-standing societal effects of traditional smoking, but also consider how the bill could serve to protect youths from innovative technologies offering nicotine in enticing new packages.

Ultimately, the correct vote is one that will keep kids, and adults, safe and healthy — a result advocates of HB324 say their bill will achieve.