Health experts recommend Evanston raise age to buy tobacco

Patrick Svitek, Reporter

The Evanston Health Advisory Council is asking aldermen to raise the minimum age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21, a move the group says will make the city a “health leader” in Illinois.

Dr. Timothy Sanborn made the group’s case Monday night before the city’s Human Services Committee, citing data that teens are more likely to become addicted to nicotine than other age groups. Thirty-one percent of smokers began smoking on a daily basis when they were young, according to his presentation.

The health advisory council based its proposal on the Tobacco 21 law in Needham, Massachusetts, which set the smoking age at 21 in 2005. Over the next five years, the smoking rate among high school students in Needham dropped at a rate more than triple that in surrounding towns, according to the New England Journal of Medicine.

Although smoking rates in the United States dropped by more than half from 1964 to 2012, smoking is still the top cause of preventable death in the country, according to Sanborn’s presentation. He cited data showing Evanston has reflected that trend, with almost half as many Evanston Township High School students reporting they had smoked cigarettes over a 30-day period in 2012 than they did a year earlier.

Although the health advisory council is “making an impact” on smoking rates among ETHS students, there is still work to do, Sanborn said. For example, he expressed concern that friends remain the top source of tobacco for ETHS students.

Aldermen were scheduled to only discuss the health advisory council’s recommendation, and it was unclear from the meeting whether they wanted to pursue any legislation related to the issue. Ald. Jane Grover (7th), one of a few aldermen who briefly spoke after Sanborn’s pitch, agreed with Sanborn that the data he shared seems to dispel a common criticism of Tobacco 21 laws — that they will cause young people to simply look elsewhere for tobacco products if they are not old enough to buy them in one community.

In November of last year, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed into law a similar ban on tobacco sales to anyone under 21. The New York City plan led the alderman who chairs Chicago’s Committee on Health and Environmental Protection to express his support for the idea, the Sun-Times reported earlier that year.

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