You might be surprised to learn that a majority of teens and pre-teens support raising the minimum age someone can buy tobacco products to 21 years old, according to new research.
The study was conducted to learn more about youth opinions (ages 11 to 18) on laws that would limit the sale of tobacco to individuals age 21 years or older, specifically, the Tobacco 21 initiative.
Tobacco 21 is a program started by the Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation that promotes increasing the minimum age for tobacco purchases.
The new study included more than 17,000 teens and preteens from 185 U.S. schools. Researchers found that younger adolescents were more likely to support the initiative and girls were more likely to support raising the minimum age than boys.
"Current studies have focused on the attitudes of adults, and little is known about how youth nationwide perceive the Tobacco 21 initiative as well as the correlations between these attitudes and smoking behaviors," said study author Hongying Dai. She's an associate professor in the Health Services and Outcomes Research Department at Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo.
The reasons for increasing the age to 21 are largely scientific. Kids are at the greatest risk of becoming smokers, and smokers almost always begin experimenting with cigarettes and other tobacco products before age 18, the researchers said.
"The adolescent brain is still developing, and using tobacco at that age can actually change and alter brain development," explained Bill Blatt. He's the national director of tobacco programs for the American Lung Association.
"You end up with more brain receptors that are looking for nicotine, and the brain structure changes. That's why you become addicted for a lifetime," Blatt said.
Researchers found that about 71 percent of teens that didn't smoke cigarettes or e-cigarettes supported raising the purchase age. But not surprisingly, teens currently using tobacco products or e-cigarettes were not as keen on raising the age limit. Only 17 percent of teens that smoked cigarettes supported Tobacco 21 initiatives. For current e-cigarette users, the number was 31 percent.
In recent years, there has been a continued decline in teen smoking, but for a while alternative tobacco products such as e-cigarette gained in popularity. That trend seems to be lessening as well.
"A lot of people perceive e-cigarettes as being less harmful than regular cigarettes, and some people think they aren't harmful at all," said Blatt. "But we don't have the evidence to support that."
Tobacco 21 would also increase the age on the purchase of e-cigarettes.
Tobacco 21 is beginning to have an impact on laws in a couple of states and at least 215 cities, according to their website.
"This is good evidence for state legislators to understand that there is broad support, even among teens for Tobacco 21 policies," Blatt said. "It's a bit tough when you have a patchwork of policies where you can't buy cigarettes if you are 19 in this county, but you can in the next county. It's much better if you have to be 21 in all counties."
The study was published in the journal Pediatrics.