- Associated Press - Thursday, March 12, 2015

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Raising the legal age to buy tobacco to 19 or older than would likely prevent premature death for hundreds of thousands of people, according to a report issued Thursday by the Institute of Medicine.

The IOM report examines the public health effects of increasing the age to legally purchase tobacco products to 19, 21 or 25. Raising the age was associated with delayed initiation of tobacco use, as well as a likely decrease in smoking prevalence.

While it doesn’t make any recommendations, officials say, the IOM report 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. Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the 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.

“There is no safe way to use tobacco,” said Dr. Sandra G. Hassink, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “Pediatricians support policies that keep nicotine products out of the hands of our children and youth.”

The IOM report concluded that if the legal purchasing age 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 (CDC) in June showed that fewer than 16 percent of the teens smoked a cigarette in the previous month. This is the lowest level since the government started doing the survey in 1991, when the rate was more than 27 percent.

Another CDC study has already put the teen smoking rate below 16 percent.

According to Thursday’s IOM 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 would 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, VA-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, N.C., called age limit “an important issue for discussion,” and encouraged states to strengthen laws banning youth purchase and possession and enforce existing laws.

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