Columns for The Lufkin News

Support Raising the Smoking Age to 21

Posted Feb 27, 2017 by Sidney C. Roberts, MD, FACR

The 85th Texas Legislative Session is in full swing. On Wednesday, February 15, a bill was filed in the House by Representative (and physician) John Zerwas (R) to raise the smoking age in Texas to 21 (so-called Tobacco 21, or T21 for short). A companion bill has been filed in the Senate. This is truly a bipartisan effort and is a great idea. For decades now, the legal drinking age has been 21. Tobacco kills far more people than alcohol, and almost all long-term smokers start smoking before they reach the age of 21.

Deep East Texas contains the lowest ranked counties in Texas for health outcomes, and part of that is due to our higher smoking rates. Nearly 90 percent of adults who smoke started smoking before the age of 18 and nearly 100 percent started by age 26. 18- and 19-year-old smokers are a major supplier of cigarettes for younger kids, who rely on friends and classmates to buy them. Raising the smoking age to 21 can help decrease our smoking rates as well as save tax dollars on future healthcare spending related to tobacco use.

Speaking of tax dollars, annual Texas health care expenditures directly caused by tobacco use amount to a whopping $8.85 billion, and we taxpayers bear part of that cost. The State Medicaid program’s total health spend as a result of tobacco use is $1.96 billion. No, we can’t save all of that, unfortunately, unless no one smokes. However, Jeffrey Fellows, PhD, in a Center for Health research report wrote, “Increasing the smoking age to 21 [in Texas] would result in 30,500 fewer smokers after three years, and lead to $185 million in reduced healthcare expenditures and productivity costs over five years. Lower cigarette excise tax revenue of $3.4 million would reduce the 5-year net savings; however the state would still generate a net financial savings of just under $182 million.”

It isn’t just about dollars; it’s about lives, too.

The Institute of Medicine predicts that smoking prevalence would decline by 12 percent if the national minimum age of sale was raised to 21. One of their models also predicted that raising the national minimum age of sale to 21 would result in approximately 223,000 fewer premature deaths, 50,000 fewer deaths from lung cancer, and 4.2 million fewer years of life lost for those individuals born between 2000 and 2019. Smoking kills.

In case you wonder if the tobacco companies think this will work, here’s a quote from a 1986 Philip Morris report (one of the largest suppliers of tobacco products worldwide): “Raising the legal minimum age for cigarette purchaser to 21 could gut our key young adult market (17-20) where we sell about 25 billion cigarettes and enjoy a 70 percent market share.” To the tobacco industry, it is always and only about market share and profit.

Raising the smoking age to 21 isn’t the only answer to our smoking and poor health epidemic. Many cities and even entire states have gone smoke-free. Texas needs to. Dietary and exercise components of good health also need to be emphasized. But if we can lessen the number of the next generation who start to smoke simply by increasing the smoking age of to 21, why wouldn’t we? That’s right… there is no good answer. For a healthier Texas and Angelina County, support Tobacco 21.

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Sidney C. Roberts, MD, FACR

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