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Editorial: Raise the smoking age

There are no alternative facts when it comes to tobacco products: They are harmful to human health.

The Assembly on Wednesday approved a measure to outlaw the sale of tobacco products and electronic cigarettes to anyone under 21. If the State Senate approves its companion bill, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo will sign it into law, one that is likely to save lives.

According to the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network, 95 percent of adults who smoke started before age 21.

A March 2015 report by the Institute of Medicine predicted that raising the national minimum age for the sale of tobacco products to 21 would likely lead to a 12 percent reduction in smoking frequency.

Different factors can bring about different types of cancers, including genetics and carcinogens in the environment. But smoking is like an unforced error — a risk factor that smokers bring on themselves.

Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that tobacco is the leading cause of illness and death. That’s why six other states have adopted “Tobacco 21” laws — California, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Oregon, Hawaii and Maine — along with at least 430 localities.

In New York, the law will make uniform what many municipalities and counties have already done. According to Cancer Action Network, about three-quarters of the state’s residents already live somewhere that has a smoking age of 21.

Opponents of the legislation cite the fact that an 18-year-old is an adult, with the right to vote, join the military, drive a car, or hold a job and pay taxes. But not every adult has equal rights in every aspect of life. An 18-year-old can’t legally buy alcohol in New York, and legalized use of recreational marijuana, when it happens, is also expected to start at age 21. Those age restrictions are in place to protect individuals from possible harm from restricted substances, and to protect society from the consequences of immature individuals causing harm while under the influence.

If fewer individuals start smoking before age 21, we will have fewer adult smokers, which in the long run means less shared health costs to society for tobacco-related illnesses.

The law, of course, cannot keep cigarettes out of the hands of all teenagers. Those determined to smoke will find a way to get them. But the same applies to alcohol, narcotics, firearms — illegal supplies will materialize to fill a demand vacuum. That doesn’t mean that all regulation is futile.

The part of the law covering e-cigarettes is significant. The CDC, in its annual National Youth Tobacco Survey released last month, found that the number of high school students using all tobacco products increased by about 38 percent in just one year. About 27 percent of high school teens used tobacco products in 2018, including e-cigarettes.

Nicotine vaping devices, such as the popular Juul, are behind the surge. The CDC survey found that e-cigarette use among high schoolers increased nearly 78 percent in 2018.

After two decades of a gradual decline in smoking rates among teenagers, public health officials warn that the rise in e-cigarette use threatens to reverse the trend. Vaping devices are marketed as a way to wean smokers off combustible tobacco, and there is evidence they can be effective at doing so. E-cigarettes don’t have the harmful tars of combustible ones, but they do have nicotine, in some cases in higher concentrations than regular cigarettes. And younger brains are especially vulnerable to nicotine addiction.

It’s time for New York State to join Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties in making 21 the minimum age for buying tobacco.