Health Column: The benefits of a new smoking age

Discarded cigarettes under a bench outside the entrance to the criminal courts building in Riverside. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)
Discarded cigarettes under a bench outside the entrance to the criminal courts building in Riverside. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

Come 2015, like it or lump it,  young smokers in this area likely won‘t be able to buy a pack of smokes at local convenience stores until they turn 21, now that the Suffolk County Legislature has voted to increase the minimum age for legal purchases of tobacco products. 

With County Executive Steve Bellone expected to sign the bill into law, opinions about the decision tend to depend on whether the threat to one’s life posed by smoking or the threat to one’s liberty — with young adults no longer having the right to choose — resonates most with an individual.

From a public health perspective, however, “there are a lot of reasons why [the decision] is a very good idea,” said Dr. Eduardo Constantino, director of clinic services and an addiction expert with Stony Brook University Hospital.

Carrie Miller
Carrie Miller

Estimates show that 20 percent of all deaths in the U.S. population overall could be prevented if people were to quit smoking — or never start to begin with, he said, adding, “That’s huge.”

“There seems to be plenty of evidence to show that the earlier people begin smoking, the more likely they are to become regular smokers, who are much less likely to quit,” he said.

Once addicted, about 30 to 40 percent of regular smokers will attempt to quit each year — but only about 10 percent them will succeed, Dr. Constantino said. The rest tend to go through phases of remission, he said.

The number of regular smokers has decreased by half since the 1960s and ’70s, he explained, but about 20 percent of the U.S. population remains committed to smoking. In New York, about 16 percent of the population smokes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Decreasing that further has been really difficult,” Dr. Constantino said, adding that the question remains how the new law will help to decrease it further.

According to data in the new county legislation, the Town of Needham, Mass. — which raised the legal age purchasing tobacco products to 21 in 2005 — has since succeeded in reducing smoking among youth in the town by 50 percent.

Dr. Constantino said it will take years to understand how the new law will affect the next generation of smokers countywide, he said.

But benefits are to be had for the nonsmoking population as well, as the law is also expected to save on associated health care costs, according to experts.

The average price of a pack of cigarettes in New York State is between $10 and $11 — yet each pack of cigarettes generates $35 in health-related costs for the smoker, according to the American Cancer Society.

Those costs correlate to more than $289 billion nationwide a year, including at least $133 billion in direct medical care for adults and more than $156 billion in lost productivity, according to the CDC.

In Suffolk County, those costs would be expected to decrease in future years once the new law goes into effect.

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