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Illinois Senate approves raising age to buy cigarettes to 21

Eight years after Illinois banned smoking indoors and four years after lawmakers raised the statewide cigarette tax by a dollar a pack, anti-smoking forces won another small battle this week.

The state Senate narrowly passed a measure that would raise the age to buy cigarettes and other tobacco products from 18 years to 21. It now goes to the House.

“There is no one silver bullet that helps people quit smoking, that helps reduce smoking rates,” said Kathy Drea, vice president of the American Lung Association in Illinois. “All these things are working toward the same goal and that is to reduce the death and disease caused by tobacco.”

Drea said the earlier measures contributed to decreasing rates of tobacco use among Illinois residents. In 2014, 16.5 percent of Illinois adults smoked, down from 20.9 in 2012, reported the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Opponents of the raised age limit said it’s an issue of personal freedom. A few lawmakers argued that if 18-year-olds can join the military, they should be able to buy cigarettes.

That point of view prevailed last week when the plan failed to get enough votes to pass the Senate. But conversations with constituents and retired military leaders swayed some lawmakers to change their stance.

“The military is pushing not smoking,” said state Sen. Tom Cullerton, a Villa Park Democrat who changed his vote to support the bill. “You have so many young people, too, saying, ‘Let’s be the generation that ends (smoking).'”

State Sen. Terry Link, a Vernon Hills Democrat, spearheaded the Smoke-Free Illinois initiative that banned smoking indoors. He says he’s witnessed a shift in how people view smoking.

“I had a lot of people mad at me when I did smoke-free Illinois. Today, those same people are saying thank you,” Link said.

Drea said there’s more to do to reduce tobacco use in Illinois. State funding for programs that help people quit smoking and prevention initiatives have stopped in the face of the state budget standoff.

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