Hey Gov. Christie, youth smoking is a culture problem, not an age one | Opinion

New Jersey’s Hated Governor
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Gov. Christie, a piece of advice from this 21 year old: If there is one surefire way to make smoking more appealing to minors, it is to make it more forbidden without adding any preventative education.

This past Friday, the New Jersey governor signed a bill that would raise the age to purchase tobacco products (including e-cigarettes) from 19 to 21 in New Jersey in an effort to prevent minors from starting such an unhealthy trend.

Christie proudly claimed, “We are giving 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.”

On the surface this measure seems like common sense reform: 90 percent of all long-term smokers start before the age of 18. But let’s not kid ourselves, tackling any systemic issue has never been solved by merely slapping on more restrictions.

New Jersey is not the first state to raise its minimum purchasing age to 21; California and Hawaii also raised their purchasing age as well. However, both of these states coupled the age change with sweeping reform. In California, for instance, Gov. Jerry Brown signed three additional bills that expanded smoke-free workplaces, the eligibility for tobacco prevention funds, and increased tobacco retailer licencing fees. New Jersey made no such changes.

The state already has a surprising amount of red tape around smoking as it is – with one of the nation’s highest per pack taxes at $2.70. But barely any of that estimated $944.5 million in revenue is used to fund youth prevention programs. In fact, since Christie became governor in 2010 he cut the only $7.5 million of state funds that were dedicated to funding 170 high school and 119 middle school anti-tobacco groups. Historically, these programs have helped cut teen smoking rates in half. Since then, the state has been ranked one of the worst in the nation for smoking prevention. Even Hawaii, a state that has one-eighth as many people as New Jersey, has roughly four times more funding for tobacco cessation programs.

Without meaningful reform, adding more red tape will never be able to curb teens’ desire for the forbidden. Just look at alcohol. Even with a purchasing age of 21 years old, a 2015 report by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 20 percent of youth aged 12 to 20 years drink alcohol and 13 percent reported binge drinking in the past 30 days.

That same study cited that teens turn to alcohol for three main reasons: stress, peer pressure, and the desire to be independent like an adult. These are ideas that the tobacco industry can sell as if it’s an art form, and they spend billions annually on advertising targeted to minors to do so.

As long as cigarettes retain their forbidden allure, minors will find a way to purchase them, whether it is through that one shady store that doesn’t card, an older friend, or the ubiquitous fake I.D. To simply raise the purchasing age of tobacco products does absolutely nothing to break the Marlboro Man’s carefully curated facade. In fact, it might make it even more appealing.

I would be remiss not to acknowledge the long-term benefits of raising the minimum purchasing age. The Institute for Health projects that if a minimum purchasing age of 21 is adopted nationally, the smoking prevalence will decrease by roughly 12 percent, resulting in 223,000 fewer premature deaths – 50,000 from lung cancer – and save a staggering 4.3 million more years of life among people born between 2000 and 2019.

However, these numbers will not come to fruition till many years later.

Raising the minimum purchasing age is a good start, but to truly prevent minors from picking up smoking, the state needs to also start re-investing in youth smoking prevention programs and implement bans on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship – starting with plain packaging laws that have been tremendously successful. Without proper education, the health risks for smoking will never outweigh the allure.