How raising the smoking age to 21 could stop teens from smoking

Health Minster Terry Lake's recent observation it might be time to raise B.C.'s smoking age to 21 has many activists pointing to the success of a small municipality in Massachusetts that imposed the same law a decade ago.

Anti-smoking campaigers buzzing after Health Minister Terry Lake hinted at raising smoking age

Health Minster Terry Lake's recent observation it might be time to raise the smoking age in B.C. to 21 has many activists pointing to the success of a small municipality in Massachusetts that imposed the same law a decade ago. (Shutterstock)

Anti-smokers are rejoicing in Health Minister Terry Lake's recent observation it might be time to drive up the smoking age in B.C. to 21 years old.

According to the B.C. Lung Association, an estimated 600,000 British Columbians smoke. As many as 50,000 of them are under 19.

"What we know is that many people start smoking before the age of 19," said the association's director Jack Boomer. "If we raise the legal age... there's less likelihood that people 15 to 17 will get cigarettes."

But since thousands of underage B.C. teens are already able to get their hands on cigarettes, how does raising the age limit actually keep them from smoking?

The Needham effect

Several American states have already upped the smoking age to 21. However, the movement started in a small Massachusetts town called Needham.

In 2005, Needham raised the smoking age to 21, from the nation-wide standard of 18 years. Over the five years that followed, high school smoking was reduced by 47 per cent, according to a study done by Tobacco Control.

The study also found that cigarette purchases among current smokers also declined significantly.

Since Needham upped the age limit, several U.S. states followed suit, including California and Hawaii, while Texas is currently tinkering with the idea.

According to Boomer, the success of the increased age limit comes from a lack of what researchers refer to as 'social sourcing' — or having fewer acquaintances to bootleg smokes.

"The major source of cigarettes [for smokers] under the age of 19 in B.C. is someone of a similar age," he said. "It's less likely that someone that's 15,16,17 would be familiar with someone that's 21 to go out and purchase cigarettes for them."

Boomer says he's working closely with the Canadian Cancer Society and the Heart and Stroke Foundation to lobby the province's health ministry into making the increased age limit a reality.

"We want to make it harder to start smoking — and this would reach this goal."

With files from CBC's BC Almanac


To listen to the full interview, click on the audio labelled: How raising the smoking age to 21 would deter teens from smoking