RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Raising the legal age to buy tobacco to higher than 18 would likely prevent premature death for hundreds of thousands of people, according to a report issued Thursday by the Institute of Medicine.
The report examines the public health effects of increasing the age to 19, 21 or 25. While it doesn't make any recommendations, officials say, it provides the scientific guidance state and local governments need to evaluate policies aimed at reducing tobacco use by young people.
It also adds backing to government efforts to reduce the death and disease caused by tobacco on the heels of the 50th anniversary of the landmark 1964 surgeon general's report that launched the anti-smoking movement.
Most states currently have set the age at 18, which is the federal minimum. Four states have set the age at 19 and several localities, including New York City, have raised the minimum age to 21. Increasing the federal age would take an act of Congress, which mandated the report in a 2009 law that gave the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate tobacco.
The report concluded that if it were to be raised to 21 now, it would result in about 249,000 fewer premature deaths, 45,000 fewer deaths from lung cancer and 4.2 million fewer years of life lost for people born between 2000 and 2019 when they reach their 40s and 50s.
Survey results released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in June showed fewer than 16 percent of the teens smoked a cigarette in the previous month — the lowest level since the government started doing the survey in 1991, when the rate was more than 27 percent. Another CDC study had already put the teen smoking rate below 16 percent.
According to Thursday's report, 90 percent of daily smokers first tried a cigarette before the age of 19 and nearly all others tried their first cigarette before 26.
If the minimum age were to be raised to 19 today, the report says, there'd be about a 3 percent decrease in smoking prevalence in 2100. That decrease would rise to 12 percent if it were to be raised to age 21 and 16 percent if it were raised to age 25.
"We have reasonable confidence that there will be substantial public health benefits by raising the age," said the report's committee chair, Richard J. Bonnie, a medicine and law professor and director of the Institute of Law, Psychiatry, and Public Policy at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
Raising the age limit could be one tool in reducing smoking but "powerful interventions are needed to keep youth from life-long addictions to these deadly products," Chris Hansen, president of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, said in a statement.
Richmond, Virginia-based Altria Group Inc., owner of the nation's biggest cigarette maker, Philip Morris USA, said in a statement that it was reviewing the report, calling the issue "complex," but believes state and local governments should wait for the FDA and Congress to act.
In a separate statement, No. 2 tobacco company Reynolds American Inc., based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, called age limit "an important issue for discussion," and encouraged states to strengthen laws banning youth purchase and possession and enforce existing laws.
Michael Felberbaum can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/MLFelberbaum .