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Forum: Raising tobacco sales age will save future generations

In Connecticut, about 4,900 adults die each year because of tobacco. The fact is that tobacco kills more people than alcohol, AIDS, car crashes, illegal drugs, murders and suicides combined. (he omitted malaria) We see the effects of tobacco in heart disease, lung disease, and many other chronic conditions we treat. We see the devastation wrought, and despite the success of programs we’ve put in place to detect and treat lung cancer and other smoking-related diseases sooner, we’re not addressing the root problem: preventing people from smoking in the first place.

Now Connecticut, like many states, is considering increasing the tobacco purchase age to 21, and for good reason. Ninety-nine percent of all adult smokers report that they started smoking before age 25. Tobacco use is a pediatric epidemic because most users start in high school. Eighty percent of youth smokers will become adult smokers, and one-half of adult smokers will die prematurely from tobacco-related diseases. One half!

Specific to Connecticut, this means 56,000 kids who are now under the age of 18 will ultimately die prematurely from smoking. Currently, 13 percent of Connecticut high school students smoke, and 2,100 kids under the age of 18 become new daily smokers in Connecticut each year.

The developing brain is particularly vulnerable to nicotine exposure. Smoking during adolescence increases the risk of long-term addiction to nicotine and other drugs, and makes quitting more difficult. Most teens who smoke and use tobacco report getting cigarettes and other products from their friends; 90 percent of those who provide cigarettes to younger teens are under the age of 21. Increasing the sales age will limit high school and middle school youths’ access to addictive products from older teens.

Needham, Massachusetts, became the first town in the country to raise its tobacco sales age to 21, in 2005. A recent study of the town’s smoking rate among high school students showed a 47 percent reduction as well as a reported decline in area retail tobacco purchases. To date, Hawaii and at least 125 localities in nine additional states have followed Needham’s lead. As a state that prides itself in our health status and focus on prevention, Connecticut should be the next state to take the lead in this fight, and for more than public health reasons alone.

Not only is tobacco killing us and our kids, but it is also associated with some staggering monetary impacts. More than $2 billion in annual health care costs in Connecticut are directly caused by smoking. Whether or not you smoke, you should know that you are literally paying for those who do. Per household, Connecticut residents incur a $916 federal and state tax burden from smoking-caused government expenditures.

During Connecticut’s current legislative session, there was a bill proposing this age increase. The tobacco industry submitted testimony against the bill and reminded legislators that a similar New Jersey bill, if passed, would reduce cigarette and tobacco excise tax and sales tax revenue by $19 million annually. This, in part, led some to believe that passing such a law in Connecticut would result in a bigger state budget deficit which, in the current budget climate, was more than enough to prevent the bill from seeing the light of day. It is unfortunate that legislators failed to recognize that should lower tobacco tax revenue materialize, it would be the result of fewer Connecticut residents smoking and therefore reduce the state’s burden of smoking related healthcare costs and create a healthier future for our children.

This conversation needs to continue and be taken seriously by our elected lawmakers who faithfully serve the best interests of their constituents. Make no mistake, beyond possibly losing a valued customer, the tobacco industry does not care about the lives lost from smoking or the quality of life and well being of the people in our state. They do not care about those 56,000 kids in Connecticut now under the age of 18 who will eventually die prematurely as a result of the use of their product. Raising the tobacco purchase age to 21 makes good sense and is the right thing to do — now, before more tax dollars are wasted and more lives are lost.

Patrick Charmel is president and CEO of Griffin Hospital and a member of the board of directors of the American Heart Association of Connecticut and Western Massachusetts.

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