Tobacco 21 laws aren’t the most effective way to reduce smoking, professor says
The new Texas law that bans tobacco and nicotine sales to people under 21 comes at a time when it’s typical to see the thin, watery vapor of peoples’ Juuls and other vaping devices. However the new law may not be the most effective approach to reduce tobacco use among young people, a UH professor says.
Senate Bill 21 went into effect on Sunday, after being signed in June, and will now change the age people can obtain tobacco from 18 to 21. Texas follows a trend of states raising the age to buy smoking and vaping products in an attempt to curb youth smoking.
“In a way, I think this law will intrigue younger people the same way the 21 law does for drinking,” said nursing freshman Nathan Aguilar. “Kids still find a way.”
The law allows people in the military or those who are born on or before Aug. 31, 2001 to continue buying tobacco products, so those who are already 18 by the time the law changes will not be affected. However next fall many incoming students will not be able to legally buy these products.
“Next fall, I’d expect to see anywhere from a 5 percent to 10 percent dip in our business,” said Joshua McGee, owner of the Vapor Lair in Montrose and 2009 UH Bauer alum.
The law’s effectiveness on youth vaping and smoking is yet to be seen, but public health researcher Helen Valier, who holds a doctorate in the history of medicine and is the director of the Medicine and Society program at UH, believes it helps to look to what has worked in the past.
Valier said the most effective laws for the prevention of smoking, historically, have not been age limits.
Rather, Valier said, creating smoke-free environments, running anti-smoking mass-media campaigns, providing support to quit smoking and increased taxes on tobacco products have been some of the most effective public health efforts when it comes to curtailing tobacco use.
Higher tax rates are especially effective in reducing smoking rates in young people, Valier said.
“My worry then is that we have proven, evidence-based, data-driven public health strategies and this new drive for Tobacco 21 laws is not data-driven or evidence-based,” Valier said in an email.
Youth nicotine users who will be affected by this law may already have some experience getting around minimum-age limits.
“For the most part, a lot of the underage people who have been vaping have been able to get the products from somebody older that they know or they’ve been able to get them online, where they only need a credit card for some websites,” said McGee.
Some younger students, like Aguilar, agree that it hasn’t been very difficult to work around laws that aim to prevent youth tobacco use.
“I started vaping when I was in 7th grade to follow a trend, and I got the device and liquid online,” Aguilar said. “On occasion I smoke cigarettes, but those were really not hard to find because my family smokes, so cigarettes were always just laying around.”
A major supporter of Texas’ Tobacco 21 law is Juul Labs Inc., a popular e-cigarettes manufacturer, who said on their website that youth use of vapor products was detrimental to their mission and that they have long advocated and supported similar age-minimum laws.
“On the surface it makes sense,” Valier said. “There are very good reasons indeed for young people not to get addicted to nicotine, but if reduction in underage use of tobacco or nicotine products is really the major aim then why not use a proven solution.”