That's the surprising conclusion of a new study, which suggests such "access" laws, which encourage merchants to ask tobacco buyers for identification proving they're over 18, are ineffective. The reason: Kids who want to smoke will seek cigarettes from friends and family members when turned away at the mini-mart.
"I don't think people should sell cigarettes to 14-year-olds, but whether you do or not doesn't matter for whether that kid is going to smoke," says study co-author Stanton A. Glantz, a tobacco expert at the University of California, San Francisco.
"While it's true that most people start smoking as teenagers, they don't smoke a lot, so it doesn't really take a lot of cigarettes to get somebody started," says Glantz, whose study appears in the June issue of Pediatrics. If they can't buy a pack at a convenience store, they bum smokes off others.
"I wouldn't bother with them anymore," Glantz says of the laws. "I think they're a waste of time."
Not only are they irrelevant, but they also drain precious resources away from other tobacco control initiatives that do prevent youth smoking, he says. These include clean indoor air laws that ban smoking in bars and restaurants, and tobacco tax increases.
It might seem that if access laws don't work, tax hikes won't either. However, Glantz says there seems to be a trickle-down effect with cigarettes. As young adults find it harder to buy them, youth smoking rates drop.
The number of high school students who smoke regularly took a sharp turn downward between 1997 and 2001, from roughly 36 percent to 28.5 percent, according to a recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Experts credited the decline to higher cigarette taxes, anti-smoking campaigns aimed at teens, and comprehensive state efforts to reduce rates of youth tobacco use.
Although the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal version of a tobacco access law, all 50 states and nearly 1,140 local jurisdictions had such provisions by last August.
In the new work, Glantz and a colleague, Caroline Fichtenberg of the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health, analyzed previous studies of the effects of these laws, conducted between 1985 and 2001.
Taken together, the studies revealed no connection between how well merchants complied with access laws and the number of youths who reported smoking in the past 30 days or longer. Nor did they show that youth smoking rates fell as compliance with the laws increased, or that there was a minimum level of adherence above which the laws appeared to kick in.
Finally, they found declines in youth smoking rates were essentially identical between communities that put the laws in place and those that did not.
Glantz admits his study is likely to meet with heavy resistance from tobacco control partisans who favor access laws.
Dr. Joseph DiFranza is one such expert. DiFranza, a family physician at the University of Massachusetts and a longtime researcher in the area of access laws, says he strongly disagrees with the latest findings.
"What we know is that we can't make it impossible for all kids to obtain tobacco. But these laws do make it more difficult, and for some kids that's enough to discourage them from smoking," DiFranza says. Scrapping them entirely, he adds, would be a mistake.
DiFranza acknowledges the laws are "meaningless" in the absence of good enforcement. He believes they don't become effective until at least 90 percent of merchants comply.
However, Glantz says his study found no such "threshold" effect, and that even if one did exist, it's extremely difficult to boost widespread compliance above 80 percent to 85 percent. Efforts to reach this goal may in fact have a perverse result, Glantz adds, since they tend to galvanize merchants against more effective policies like clean indoor air laws.
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