Clear The Air News Tobacco Blog Rotating Header Image

GUEST VIEW: Raising tobacco age to 21 is way to keep children healthy

Smoking-related illnesses are the equivalent of a modern-day plague. Smoking harms nearly every organ in our bodies; it hurts innocent people who inhale it second-hand; it puts the unborn at risk.

“It’s incredible the suffering we see directly related to tobacco: people losing their voice boxes, their jaws, their tongues, and people being mutilated by surgeries and chemo that we have to perform to cure these cancers,” Dr. Erich Sturgis, a medical oncologist at M.D. Anderson told us. Each year in Texas, smoking-related illnesses lead to more than $2.2 billion in health-care costs and lost productivity, and more than 2,000 deaths.

The difference between smoking-related illnesses and almost every other health scourge visited on mankind is that we have the tools to end it. Although our state and our nation lack the political will to ban tobacco, we can help more people live longer, healthier lives by raising the minimum age for cigarettes to 21.

Virtually all adult smokers started by age 21. Delaying the initiation of smoking reduces the likelihood that someone will become a lifelong smoker.

Right now, more than two-thirds of 10th grade students and nearly half of eighth-grade students say it’s easy to get a cigarette, according to M.D. Anderson’s EndTobacco initiative. Given the stakes for these kids’ health, that level of access is acute. Many head- and neck-related cancers tied to smoking don’t show up until patients are in their mid-60s, a fate that is impossible for teens to comprehend.

By raising the minimum age to 21 for the sale of tobacco products, lawmakers could, over time, reduce the use of tobacco products by one-third in 18-to-20-year-old Texans, according to a report prepared by the Texas Comptroller’s Office. The impact would be direct: Reducing the number of teens who start smoking would slow the rate at which tobacco companies replace those who die of smoking-related diseases with new customers.

Take the law raising the minimum drinking age to 21. Although it didn’t eliminate underage drinking, the change is credited with having spared almost 22,000 lives between 1975 and 2002, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

More than 145 localities including New York City, Chicago, Boston and Cleveland have adopted this commonsense approach, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a nonprofit advocacy group. Hawaii was the first state to raise the minimum smoking age, and this month California became the second.

Opponents of the law point out that because 18-year-olds can vote, serve in the military and drive, it’s ludicrous for them not to be able to buy cigarettes. Left out of the argument is this salient fact: Nicotine is an addictive substance.

Neuroscience suggests that most people don’t achieve full physiological maturity until the age of 25 and that immature brains are particularly vulnerable to the effects of nicotine use. About 3 out of 4 teen smokers end up hooked even if they intend to quit after a few years. Moreover, exposure to nicotine may have lasting, adverse consequences on brain development.

There’s a still more pernicious reason that can help explain why this common-sense law hasn’t been adopted in Texas. Raising the minimum age would have a negative impact on tax revenues, with an estimated $40 million loss in 2016. But that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the longterm costs of smoking, not to mention to loss of life and suffering it engenders. For the good of young Texans, our Legislature must disregard short-term losses and adopt this farsighted policy.

Tobacco control laws are popular with voters. Nearly three-quarters of adults surveyed supported changing the age to 21, according to a 2015 paper by researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including 7 out of 10 smokers.

It’s said that youth is wasted on the young. It’s true that often teens don’t have the experience or maturity to appreciate the gift of life. But our older and wiser lawmakers should. With the next session of the Legislature just around the corner, where is the courageous lawmaker who cares enough about Texas youth to stand up to Big Tobacco and to sponsor a bill to raise the legal age for cigarettes to 21?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>