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Curbing tobacco pays dividends

Hardly anyone starts smoking after age 21, for obvious reasons: By adulthood, people can better grasp the deadly risks and expense of tobacco addiction.

That explains why tobacco companies target marketing to young adults, ages 18 to 21. “They know it is a critical time period for solidifying tobacco addiction,” according to the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids.

This addiction is life-changing and life-ending: Smoking eventually kills a third of those who become smokers before age 18. It is the leading cause of preventable deaths in the U.S., killing more people than alcohol, AIDS, car crashes, illegal drugs, murders and suicides — combined.

This argues for legislation under consideration by Columbus City Council to ban tobacco sales, including e-cigarettes, to those younger than 21. (A public hearing will be held at 5 p.m. on Tuesday at Columbus City Hall, 90 W. Broad Street.)

While, generally, government should not be in the position of dictating personal choices to adults, who now might purchase tobacco products at 18, it has overriding reasons to intervene:

Big Tobacco spends more than $1 million a day — an estimated $425.7 million a year — marketing its product in Ohio. A government ban on sales to those most susceptible to the industry’s subliminal and overt advertising efforts evens the playing field. And it meets government’s obligation to protect citizens’ health, including efforts to reduce Ohio’s high infant-mortality rate.

Federal studies also show 95 percent of smokers begin before age 21. Delaying addiction amounts to preventing it.

Taxpayers bear an enormous expense from tobacco use. Smoking-related Medicaid costs in the state total $1.72 billion a year, Tobacco Free Kids reports. It estimates each Ohio household pays $1,047 in state and federal taxes for smoking-related government expenditures.

And since many teens in middle and high school get their smokes from high-school pals or siblings who can buy at age 18, restricting the supply line could help snuff out smoking before young people can become addicted.

“If we can prevent the addiction from the beginning, that’s the right start,” said Dr. Teresa Long, health commissioner for Columbus.

Her city would join a growing number of cities and states, including California and Hawaii, that have raised the legal age for tobacco sales to 21. In Ohio, Cleveland, Upper Arlington and Grandview Heights all have similar bans.

The Columbus proposal would not criminalize the smoker, but police could charge clerks and levy fines for underage sales. Columbus Public Health says its proposed ban would differ from many other existing ones, in that it includes compliance checks and education for merchants and the public. To do so, it will hire a dedicated sanitarian and a part-time administrator. This shows the city is serious about protecting young people.

Raising the legal smoking age works: After Needham, Massachusetts, banned cigarette sales in 2005 to those under 21, tobacco use dropped by nearly half among those younger than 18.

Ohio already bans alcohol use until age 21, a recognition that youths need to develop judgment before obtaining a product that, absent abuse and far unlike tobacco, might have heart-healthy benefits.

Retailers, who would be required to purchase a $150 annual sales license, understandably question whether cities should be able to regulate tobacco sales; the Ohio Council of Retail Merchants thinks the state should decide. We agree: The legislature should follow the bold lead of its largest cities and raise the age for tobacco purchases statewide to age 21.

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