FORBES | Today we have a massive and growing public health challenge that is substantially shortening the lives of millions, negatively impacting the health of our children, and adding an astounding $170 billion in health care costs to our nation annually. Unknown to most, it has been for years the leading cause of preventable death in the United States. But a new policy approach that 11 states and over 450 cities and counties have adopted is making promising inroads in this health challenge.
The challenge we are facing is tobacco and nicotine use. Smoking kills more people each year than alcohol, AIDS, car crashes, illegal drugs, murders, and suicides combined. And while the number of youth tobacco smokers had been declining for decades, it has recently plateaued and many health officials believe the explosion in vaping is to blame. Nicotine-rich e-cigarette devices were designed to help adult smokers quit, but they have increasingly attracted adolescents and children using candy and fruit flavors with devastating long-term consequences. Indeed, Rite Aid, one of the country’s biggest pharmacy chains, just announced it was discontinuing the sale of e-cigarettes and vaping products because of “the alarming statistics regarding the use… by children and teens.”
We have a solution. Research has shown that nearly 95% of adults who smoke started smoking before the age of 21. If we take steps to make it harder for youth to access these products, we can potentially prevent a whole new generation from starting this habit and becoming addicted to nicotine and tobacco in the first place. This is what Maine, Virginia, California, Oregon, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Hawaii, Arkansas, Washington, Utah, and 450 cities and counties have done: they raised the tobacco sale age from 18 to 21. And while this is a new approach that’s just beginning to take hold, we’re already seeing promising results. In 2005, Needham, Massachusetts became the very first town to raise the tobacco sale age to 21. Within the first five years, high school smoking dropped 48%. The city of Chicago found a 36% decrease in smoking in 18-20 year olds just one year after implementation. By all accounts, this type of behavior change is a major public health achievement.