Friday, March 17, 2017

What Happened in NYC After Raising the Smoking Age to 21?

In 2014, New York City became the first major city in the USA to raise the tobacco purchase age to 21.  Prior to that, it was 18, much like the rest of the country.   The law was passed by Mayor Bloomberg at the end of 2013, and it went into effect in May 2014.

Since then, two states (California and Hawaii) have also raised it to 21 (both in 2016) and several counties and towns/cities as well from 2013-2017, though a few localities had also done so earlier as well.  When Needham, MA did so in 2005-2008, there was much praise from the pro-21 crowd when surveys showed that teen smoking rates had dropped much faster in Needham than in its surrounding communities (which were 18) from 2006-2010.  So it is very curious indeed that no one seems to be talking about what happened in NYC since they raised their smoking age.

We think we know why.  At first glance, it does appear to have had some effect.  According to the CDC's Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), teen smoking rates did in fact drop from 2013 to 2015 in NYC: 

2005   11.2%
2007   8.5%
2009   8.4%
2011   8.5%
2013   8.2%
2015   5.8%

Those are the percentages of combined 9-12 grade students who reported any current cigarette smoking in the past 30 days.  Looks impressive at first:  a relative 29% drop from 2013 to 2015.  But take a look at the same data for the nation as a whole, for comparison:

2005   23.0%
2007   20.0%
2009   19.5%
2011   18.1%
2013   15.7%
2015   10.8%

As you can see, the nation as a whole also saw a similar (if even faster) drop in teen smoking at the same time, with a relative 31% decrease from 2013 to 2015, despite no change in the smoking age in most places.  And the teen smoking rate in NYC was already much lower before the law change, having dropped more dramatically than the rest of the USA prior to 2007 and then remaining at a low level since. 

How about San Francisco, another major city that raised its age limit to 21?

2005   10.9%
2007   8.0%
2009   10.4%
2011   10.7%
2013   7.5%
2015   5.4%

They also saw a similar size drop from 2013-2015, to the tune of 28% (vs. 29% in NYC and 31% in the USA overall).  Just one problem though.  San Francisco did not raise their smoking age until 2016, so these data show that the drop in the smoking rate happened while it was still 18, before the age limit was raised.  Thus, it would actually be part of the no-change control group, not the experimental group.  And if you include the decrease since 2011, San Francisco in fact saw more progress than NYC.

Thus, we can conclude that the decrease in teen smoking in NYC following the hike in the purchase age was most likely NOT causally linked to it, and would most likely have occurred regardless given the above counterfactual data.  Kinda like we at Twenty-One Debunked initially predicted back in 2013 after first learning of the law change being proposed.  So if that wasn't the cause, what was?  Well, we know that nationwide, as well as in NYC, the secular trend for the past four decades (except a brief increase from 1992-1997) has been downward for both teen and adult smoking.  This was due to a general combination of education/awareness, taxation, regulation, and advertising restrictions, and the resulting cultural changes.  And in very recent years, electronic cigarettes have gained popularity as an alternative to combustible cigarettes, and in fact overtaking the latter and becoming at least twice as popular among high-schoolers by 2015.  Note that this was also true in NYC despite the 21 age limit applying to e-cigarettes as well.

Bottom line:  it looks like the supposed benefits of raising the smoking age to 21 were, shall we say, all smoke and mirrors.  The supposed success of Needham, MA was likely a statistical fluke and/or a result of endogeneity, much like the "early adopter" effects of the first few states to raise the drinking age to 21 creating that particular mirage in the 1980s.  Or perhaps increased enforcement in general relative to neighboring towns did the trick regardless of the age limit, like it did in Woodridge, IL and several other communities the 1990s.  And even if such benefits of the 21 age limit were real, we at Twenty-One Debunked would still not support an age limit any higher than 18, on principle alone.  Old enough to fight and vote = old enough to drink and smoke.  'Nuff said.


  1. Indeed, a smoking age of 21 is oppression against young people who are 18-20 years old. There is and will never be justification for violating the rights of young people when it comes to tobacco. Young people should be allowed to choose for themselves. The statistics regarding the smoking age of 21 show that the age discriminatory minimum age to buy cigarettes has no effect. Proponents of this ageist minimum age are tyrants, period. They should be stopped at all costs. Elected officials who support a smoking age of 21 no longer deserve their elected office.

  2. Looks like Kristie Kreme in NJ also jumped on that bandwagon recently as well.