Why raise the tobacco age to 21?; saving our youth from addiction

Doctors say that the younger a brain is the more susceptible it is to nicotine addiction. The younger a person is when they become addicted the more difficult it is for them to overcome the addiction. The tobacco age of 18 enables people who don’t know better to become addicted to a substance that will harm them and those around them for the rest of their lives. I think we should do whatever we can to prevent that. Increasing the minimum age to purchase reduces tobacco product use among youth. That is why I sponsored the ordinance to raise the age to 21.

The judgment part of the human brain does not fully develop until the early to mid twenties. People under 21 are more prone to making unwise and impulsive decisions. They do not fully appreciate the consequences of their decisions. The law recognizes this in many areas. Although they can vote, 18 year-olds can’t run for the state senate, governor’s council, governor, or federal office. They can’t buy alcohol and, if the bill legalizing marijuana passes, they still won’t be able to buy marijuana. They can’t get a commercial license to drive a truck carrying hazardous materials or a truck across state lines. They can’t rent a car. They can’t even adopt a pet from the Humane Society.

The argument that: “If 18 year-olds can serve in the military and die for their country, they should be able to smoke” is, I think, a false one. Of the people between 18 and 20 who are eligible to enlist in the military, only about one half of one percent joins. Those who do are volunteering to do so. If they do enlist, they won’t be serving in Nashua. When they go to basic training, no branch of the military will let them bring or use tobacco products. If they are already smoking or using tobacco products, they will be told to stop before reporting. The Department of Defense recognizes that tobacco products are harmful to the health of our soldiers and has a negative effect on their combat readiness. DOD regulations prohibit the use of tobacco products inside military buildings. Does it make any sense to add tobacco addiction to all of the other problems our veterans are exposed to?

Some people say that: “18 year-olds are legal adults and should be able to do whatever they want as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else.” I, personally, as a former Army officer, and as a lawyer, have witnessed the tragic consequences of bad decisions made by young people on themselves and others and their families. The use of tobacco products doesn’t just hurt the person using them; it also hurts many others. The annual New Hampshire cost of health care directly caused by smoking is $729 million. That is paid by all of us in increased insurance premiums and taxes. Secondary smoke and vaping aerosol produced by smokers and vapers can harm the health of people around them. Smoking by parents, especially pregnant mothers, can harm the health of their children. Smoking kills more people than alcohol, AIDS, car crashes, illegal drugs, murders, and suicides combined. 1900 people die each year in New Hampshire from smoking. It is estimated that 22,000 of kids now under 18 and alive in New Hampshire will die prematurely from smoking. What is the value of those lives? What is the harm that those deaths will cause their families and survivors? What is the cost of replacing the financial support those fathers and mothers would have provided their children?

Others say that raising the age in just Nashua will not be effective. People will just go to a neighboring town to buy cigarettes. We should wait for the state legislature to raise the age state-wide. But the research shows that raising the age is effective. A 2014 article in the American Journal of Public Health estimated that raising the age to 21 would reduce tobacco use among 15 to 17 year olds by 55% within 7 years. Needham was the first city in Massachusetts to raise the age to 21 in 2005. When it did, it was surrounded by cities and towns where the age was still 18. 18 year olds could cross the line into Dedham, Dover, Wellesley, Newton, or Boston and buy cigarettes legally. Yet, within 4 years, smoking by students at Needham High School was reduced by 47%! Over 200 other communities followed Needham’s example and last year the Massachusetts legislature raised the age to 21 state-wide. So has Maine. The New Hampshire legislature has not passed legislation to raise the age to 21 state-wide, but it has enabled local cities and towns to do so in RSA 126-K:14. Dover, Keene, and Newmarket have done so. Nashua should join them in becoming an example to the rest of the state of how much we value our youth. We don’t have to wait for the state legislature. We can do this now.

If raising the tobacco age can save half of our young people from starting down the path of addiction – even if it’s just a few – isn’t it worth doing?

Ernie Jette is a member of the Nashua Board of Aldermen, Ward 5.