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Raising the tobacco purchasing age to 21 in Illinois will save lives

On Thursday, Feb. 18, I stood with fellow health organizations and state Sen. John G. Mulroe as he introduced Senate Bill 3011. Known as Tobacco 21, it would raise the tobacco purchasing age to 21 in Illinois. This bill will save lives and protect taxpayers by saving on health care costs associated with tobacco use. I urge everyone to reach out to your state senators to ask them to vote yes on SB 3011.

Tobacco 21 is backed with scientific evidence. In March 2015, the Institute of Medicine released a study that estimated that raising the tobacco purchasing age to 21 would reduce smoking among 15- to 17-year-olds by 25 percent, and 18- to 20-year-olds by 15 percent. Many thousands of kids will live longer, healthier lives because they will never become addicted to nicotine.

At the press conference, Sen. Mulroe stated, “I feel it is my responsibility and obligation to do what I can to keep cigarettes out of the hands of young people.” As a doctor, I can tell you that no one has ever told me they were glad they started smoking or using tobacco. Now, 18-year-olds still in high school provide direct access to tobacco products for their younger friends. But 15- to 17-year-olds are a lot less likely to have 21-year-olds in their social circle.

Tobacco 21 would also cover the purchasing of e-cigarettes, the health effects of which are unknown.

What we do know is that e-cigarettes produce an aerosol that has nicotine, harmful chemicals and toxins known to cause cancer and other ailments. They are not approved by the FDA as a way to quit smoking. Meanwhile e-cigarette use among youth has tripled in just the past few years.

Tobacco companies know they can never win on health, so they throw out one misleading argument after another. I can tell you that at age 18, the human brain is still maturing, making it even more susceptible to nicotine addiction. Our laws place reasonable age restrictions; drinking, gambling and obtaining a concealed carry license are all reserved for 21-year-olds. Experience has shown that increasing the alcohol purchasing age to 21, for example, resulted in a dramatic reduction in drunk driving fatalities and reduced alcohol consumption among youth. Tobacco purchases should wait until 21 for the same reason: protecting the health of young people and helping them avoid bad decisions that they’ll regret for a lifetime.

Some people suggest that if someone is “old enough to fight for their country,” they should be old enough to buy cigarettes. But, as Sen. Mulroe pointed out, who more than our soldiers do we need to keep healthy? That’s why military personnel younger than 21 already cannot buy or consume liquor.

But whatever their age, soldiers’ health impacts military readiness and national security. Because our soldiers need to be in top physical shape to do their jobs, the U.S. Department of Defense has already committed to making all military bases and posts worldwide tobacco-free by the year 2020. There is nothing patriotic about tobacco use or selling these products to 18- to 20-year-olds

The costs of treating smoking-related illnesses are astronomical. Illinois currently spends US$5.49 billion, US$2 billion of that from the state’s Medicaid program, to treat tobacco related diseases.

The state and federal tax burden in Illinois to treat sick smokers is US$982 per household! Smoking affects all of us, whether we smoke or not!

Support for raising the purchasing age to 21 is spreading nationwide. 75 percent of U.S. adults support raising the smoking age to 21. Hawaii and more than 120 cities nationwide including Boston, Kansas City, New York City, Cleveland and Evanston have similar laws in place.

Please contact your legislator and ask him or her to save lives and lower health care costs in Illinois by supporting Senate Bill 3011, Tobacco 21!

— Dr. Ronald L. Johnson is past president of the Illinois Academy of Family Physicians and a physician at Quincy Medical Group in Quincy.

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