Tobacco 21: What It Is and What’s Happening in Texas

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by: Christi Koenig Brisky, Esq.

The Tobacco21 movement has made its way to Texas after a whirlwind policy shift across the United States. In both the House and the Senate, lawmakers have filed bills that would prohibit the sale of cigarettes, e-cigarettes, and other tobacco products to anyone under the age of 21. If passed, the bills would 1) criminalize the possession of tobacco products to anyone under 21, and 2) charge anyone found guilty of selling to underage youth with a Class C Misdemeanor, which could result in a $500 fine. These bills have crossed partisan lines, with Republicans and Democrats co-authoring Tobacco21 bills in the Texas legislature.

Tobacco21 is a public health movement most accurately summarized by its social media hashtag: #raisetheage. Those in favor of raising the legal purchase age of tobacco 21 believe it would reduce the most commonly seen form of underage tobacco purchasing: the social purchase of tobacco for underage users by someone 18 or older. Approximately 86% of students report that they obtain their cigarettes from social sources, with research showing that 15-17 year olds obtain cigarettes through social sources 86% of the time and e-cigarettes through social sources 89% of the time.  The Institute of Medicine estimated that if the minimum legal age were increased to 21, it would reduce smoking initiation among 15-17 year olds by approximately 25%. Anecdotally, Needham, Massachusetts, the first city in the United States to increase the tobacco sales age to 21, saw tobacco use rates among high school students decrease by almost 50%, with frequent tobacco use decreasing by 62%.

The vast majority of states in the country have set the legal smoking age at 18. Four states (Alabama, Alaska, New Jersey, and Utah) have adopted a minimum legal smoking age of 19. Even more states have considered—and failed to pass—statutes increasing the legal smoking age, despite significant popular support across party lines.

Despite some pushback from both the tobacco industry and political operatives, this movement has made incredible legislative strides since 2014. Over the past two years, two states—California and Hawaii— and over two hundred cities and counties across the country have passed ordinances to raise the legal minimum age for sale of all tobacco and nicotine products from 18 to 21. This is not just a state issue; U.S. Senator Brian Schatz and nine co-sponsors introduced legislation to raise the age to 21 nationwide for purchase of any tobacco product, including cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco, and as of 2016, vaping products. Although it ultimately died in Committee, this attempt was an important milestone for the Tobacco21 movement.

Tobacco21 does not just affect 90% of smokers who started smoking by age 20; it also affects the overall public health of our country as a whole. The Institute of Medicine reported that by raising the age, it would reduce premature deaths by almost 223,000 and lung cancer deaths by 50,000. The conservative estimate is that Tobacco21 would also prevent 4.2 million years of life lost to smoking in youth alive today.

Tobacco doesn’t just cost us lives. Both individually and nationwide, smoking has a pretty hefty price tag. Nationwide, smoking costs each taxpaying household about $951 per year.  In Texas alone, it causes financial bleeding to the tune of about $17.1 billion in total annual health care expenditures caused by tobacco-related diseases. Secondhand smoke exposure is associated with an estimated $6.03 billion in annual health care expenditures, nationwide. That’s right—smoking costs you money even if you don’t actually smoke yourself. What’s more, for every one Texan who quits smoking, there is a five-year savings of $7,027 in medical costs and lost productivity.

These are issues that directly affect Texans, and we will continue to follow the Tobacco 21 movement in our state and across the country. In the meantime, we encourage you to register for our Summit on May 1 – 2, 2017 to learn more about this and other tobacco issues in Texas. Visit www.TexansStandingTall.org to register.

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