Evidence supports the need to raise the legal tobacco age
Clayton Boldt, Ph.D.
This year, for the first time in Texas, lawmakers have proposed legislation that would raise the state’s minimum legal age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21. House Bill 1908, authored by Rep. John Zerwas and Senate Bill 910, authored by Sen. Joan Huffman, each have broad bipartisan support from a number of co-authors and joint authors in the legislature.
Nationwide efforts to reduce tobacco use have resulted in significant reductions in both adult and youth smoking rates, reaching all-time lows of 15.1% and 10.8%, respectively. However, tobacco use remains the single largest preventable cause of death in the U.S.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tobacco use claims an estimated 480,000 lives each year. Tobacco accounts for up to one third of all cancers, increases the risk for heart disease, lung disease, diabetes and stroke, and can affect fertility and fetal development.
Each year in Texas, tobacco is responsible for 28,000 deaths, more than $8.8 billion in direct health care expenses and another $8.2 billion in productivity losses.
The proposed legislation is an effort to continue to reduce the burden of tobacco use in Texas by limiting young people’s access to all tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes and smokeless tobacco.
Approximately 95% of adult smokers began smoking before they were 21. Each day in the U.S., about 2,500 children under 18 smoke their first cigarette, and another 400 become daily smokers. In Texas, every year about 13,700 children become daily smokers.
At a recent hearing of the Texas House Public Health Committee, Ernest Hawk, M.D., vice president and head, Division of Cancer Prevention and Population Sciences, testified as an educational resource on the impact of nicotine in children and young adults.
“The age before 21 is a crucial time for brain development, as well as social development of individuals in high school and thereafter,” said Hawk. “Therefore it serves as a particularly vulnerable time for addiction to nicotine and other tobacco-related products. Because adolescence and young adulthood serve as critical periods during which individuals are more sensitive to nicotine’s addictive effects, the impacts of this bill are likely to be significant.”
According to a report from the Health and Medicine Division of the National Academies of of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, increasing the tobacco age to 21 across the U.S. would, over time, reduce the smoking rate by an average of 12%, with the greatest effect in those between the ages of 15 and 17. The action would lower smoking-related deaths by an estimated 10% and result in 223,000 fewer premature deaths.
The report also states that raising the tobacco age would significantly reduce the number of adolescents and young adults who start smoking, and immediately improve the health of adolescents, young adults and young mothers who would be deterred from smoking.