cigaretteRaising the minimum legal age of buying cigarettes and other tobacco products to 21 or higher could save lives by delaying, and even preventing, a significant number of adolescents from ever taking their first puff, according to a new report released Thursday by the Institute of Medicine.

The current minimum age to buy tobacco products is 18, except in four states where it is 19 and several localities where it is 21.

According to the report by the Institute of Medicine, boosting the minimum legal age to 21 would reduce smoking rates by 12 percent. It would slash the rate by 16 percent if the age was raised to 25. The report comparisons were between 2015 and 2100 in the United States.

The report also found that lower smoking initiation rates would also lead to a drop in smoking-related diseases like cancer and heart diseases.  It also could have an impact on the health of pregnant mothers and their babies by reducing the number of preterm or low-weight births attributed to tobacco exposure in mothers.

The drop in smoking rates also would lessen the general population’s exposure to secondhand smoke.

“This thought-provoking IOM report reinforces what we’ve known all along – age matters when it comes to tobacco prevention,” said Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association. “If we raise the age of sale for tobacco products, we can perhaps stop a young person from indulging in that first puff, and hopefully keep them tobacco-free for their entire lifetime.”

Brown said the association commends the Institute of Medicine for “providing compelling evidence in support of changing the minimum age.

“Moving forward, we welcome even more research on this issue to help us finally make our nation 100 percent tobacco-free,” she said.

According to the IOM report, raising minimum legal ages would have the greatest impact on adolescents between the ages of 15-17, who often must rely on getting cigarettes from older friends.

Raising the minimum age to 19, the report found, “will therefore not have much of an effect on reducing the social sources of those in high school.” However, increasing the age to 21 would mean “those who can legally obtain tobacco are less likely to be in the same social networks as high school students.”

“It is hard to imagine a clearer or more convincing message from this report,” said Matthew L. Myers, president of Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Myers said he expects the report to spur changes in the minimum age.

The report is the result of a study conducted by a committee convened in 2013 at the request of the federal Food and Drug Administration. By law, the FDA is prohibited from establishing a national minimum age.