Retailers suffer, but officials say raising tobacco age decreases smoking

 In Health
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

In the past year, Cody Rector has seen most of the regular customers at his smoke shop near Loyola University disappear.

He said he’s had to adjust his marketing to appeal to an older crowd after Chicago hiked the minimum age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21 last year. Rector, general manager at All in One Smoke Shop in Edgewater, said he consistently turns away 18- to 20-year-olds, informing them of the law.

“We used to service all of the population (at Loyola),” Rector said. “We lost a significant amount of business.”

The city’s move, which went into effect in July 2016, is part of a growing trend by municipalities in the Chicago area and across the country to discourage teen smoking. Earlier this month, Lake County became the first county in Illinois to raise the minimum buying age to 21, which will take effect next year. Five states have passed similar statewide measures.

Public health advocates and city officials say the changes lead to a healthier population, pointing to studies that show smoking is a habit formed young and longtime smokers are less likely to quit. But critics question the effectiveness of hodgepodge laws, saying teens will just hop a town over to get tobacco products or turn to a budding black market. And given an overall decline in smoking nationwide, some wonder if increasing the age to buy tobacco is necessary.

But city officials say the new law is working. Revenue from tobacco taxes is projected to be down about 7 percent this year, signaling fewer people are buying the product, according to officials. And the city’s tobacco enforcement team has issued hundreds of citations to businesses that sell to minors. In more than 2,500 stings at city retailers since the minimum age was raised, the team found about 12 percent to be in violation, officials said.

“To get people to quit is much more difficult, so anything we can do to prevent an individual from starting is so important,” said Dr. Julie Morita, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health. With the older age requirement, teens “can no longer get their friends … to purchase products for them,” she added. “In a school setting, a 21-year-old in their social networks just doesn’t happen.”

Morita awaits data on youth smoking in the city since the buying age increased but said she’s confident she’ll see a decline. That would mirror the trend nationwide, where smoking continues to decrease among both teens and adults.

Nationally, about 8 percent of high schoolers smoked cigarettes last year, down from nearly twice that in 2011 and down significantly from more than 30 percent for most of the 1990s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Chicago in 2013, the most recent data available, about 10 percent of high schoolers smoked, Morita said. CDC records also show that in 2016, about 20 percent of high school students had tried any kind of tobacco product, including e-cigarettes used for vaping, down from 46 percent three years earlier.

Adult cigarette smokers nationwide decreased from about 21 percent in 2005 to about 15 percent in 2015, according to CDC data, continuing a downward trend since the 1960s, when more than 40 percent of adults smoked.

Morita, pointing to the city’s goal of a “tobacco-free generation,” said she expects the teen smoking rate to continue to fall due to a number of initiatives, not only increasing the minimum age. She also noted Chicago’s laws that restrict the sale of tobacco near schools, along with tax increases on cigarettes and e-cigarettes used for vaping, a practice that appeals to a younger smoker.

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