One million young Canadians became smokers over the last ten years. Half of them will die prematurely from tobacco-related diseases. We need to raise the minimum legal age (MLA) for buying tobacco products to 21. This would make it harder for teenagers to access tobacco, prevent them from becoming tobacco addicts, and save their lives.
Cigarettes are the only products Canadians can buy that cause death when used exactly as intended by the manufacturer. In Canada, the MLA for buying tobacco is 18 or 19, depending on the province or territory. This is too young to be allowed legal access to a known carcinogen, an addictive substance that can never be used safely.
Manufacturers need a constant supply of new smokers to replace their customers who have been killed by using their products. Tobacco companies target youth, knowing that 88% of smokers began before they were 21. Teens think the health risks are minor and remote, that they will be immune to those risks, or that they will be able to easily quit as soon as they develop a smoking-related health issue. They may assume that nothing really dangerous would be sold in such a safety-conscious country as Canada. They do not understand how addictive cigarettes are, or that the first sign of trouble may be a massive stroke or fatal heart attack. By the time they develop health problems, most smokers find it difficult or even impossible to quit. Smoking is an addiction which has to be prevented, not a habit which can be easily changed.Raising the minimum legal age (MLA) for purchasing tobacco products to 21 is an effective way of doing this.
Raising the legal minimum age for cigarette purchase to 21 could gut our key young adult market (17-20) where we sell about 25 billion cigarettes.” – Philip Morris report, January 21, 1986
Most teens get cigarettes from older friends or relatives who are, or can pretend to be, of legal age to buy them. 15-17 year olds are far less likely to have contacts who are 21+ than contacts who are 18 or 19, so raising the MLA to 21 makes it much harder for them to acquire cigarettes.
In the USA, the Tobacco 21 movement has widespread support, especially with youth groups. Even smokers are in support of preventing teenagers becoming smokers. So far, the states of Hawaii and California and over 200 municipalities (including New York, Boston and San Francisco) have successfully passed Tobacco 21 laws. Over 61 million Americans now live in areas where you must be 21 to legally buy tobacco products.
Tobacco 21 has been endorsed by: The American Medical Association, The American Lung Association, the American Heart Association, the American Academy of Family Physicians, The American Academy of Pediatrics, Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, Counter Tobacco and Action on Smoking and Health.
The US’s prestigious Institute of Medicine produced a major scientific report backing a nation-wide Tobacco 21 law, which it calculated would reduce smoking initiation by 25%, reduce overall tobacco consumption by 12%, and save 4.2 million years of life in kids alive today. By reducing smoking by pregnant teenagers, they calculated it would decrease premature births by 12% and Sudden Infant Deaths (SIDS) by 16%.
The Tobacco 21 movement is largely spearheaded by youth groups who are inspired by the possibility that they could become the first smoke-free generation. Many adult smokers, who regret that they were pulled in by the tobacco industry when they were young and vulnerable, also support it. Leadership is coming from individuals banding together to create a movement—not from government.
Substantial government revenue is generated from taxes on tobacco products. On average, smokers die ten years earlier than non-smokers, which saves governments from paying out pensions and providing benefits such as health care, for a whole decade. Governments are reluctant to take on tobacco companies. They are scared of legal battles if they pass public health laws which reduce tobacco company profits.
The impetus for change has to come from individuals. As the New England Journal of Medicine noted, Tobacco 21 is “an idea whose time has come.”
It is time for Canada to increase the minimum legal age for buying any form of tobacco to 21!