Maryland lawmakers on Monday introduced a bill to restrict the sale of tobacco products in the state to those age 21 and older instead of the current age of 18. If passed, that would make Maryland the strictest state in the nation when it comes to cigarette purchases. A few states have raised the tobacco buying age to 19, but no other state has reached the 21 marker, and only one city has: New York City last year passed a bill restricting the sale of tobacco to age 21; it goes into effect in April.
The motivation for the change to 21 is simple common sense, and several states — including Colorado, Hawaii, Texas and Utah — are expected to consider it this year. Most smokers take their first puffs as teenagers. According to a surgeon general's report, nearly 90 percent of adults who smoke daily started before age 21. The human mind does not fully mature until the mid-twenties, so a product as harmful and addictive as cigarettes should not be sold to young persons who are not even proximate to that age nor able to gauge when they've passed from experimentation to compulsion. The American Journal of Public Health notes that "often it is with their first attempt to quit that young smokers realize they have become addicted to tobacco and will not be able to quit easily."
Some 18-to-20 year olds who are absolutely determined to try smoking might still be able to obtain cigarettes through avenues such as false IDs or going through older friends or siblings (as they sometimes do with alcohol now). But there's no doubt that the greater inconvenience, plus possible extra expenses and embarrassment (as in a failed procurement effort) would reduce the percentage of rising adults who become addicted smokers.
Maryland's final legislation should have three main points. First, and unlike the New York City change to 21, the rise should be spread over three one-year intervals. It is unfair that an addicted smoker of age 19 and who had first purchased cigarettes when it was legal to do so such at the age of 18, would suddenly find that retail stores were barred from selling the product to the smoker until he or she reaches 21. Further, any substantial change in public policy should, if possible, be implemented gradually, for reasons of social cohesion.
Second — and this is consistent with New York City's ordinance — there should be no legal penalties for possession or consumption of tobacco by 18 to 20 year olds. The imposition of a penalty, such as a relatively modest fine, would probably only slightly increase the effectiveness of a "21 bill" and would lessen support for bill's passage.
Third, retailers who sell to 18 to 20 year olds should face the same penalties as they do currently for sales to youth under 18. Graduated penalties in Maryland start at $300 per violation and can result in tobacco-sales license suspension.
Notably, over the past two decades, retail-sale compliance with the 18-year-old limit has steadily increased (with impetus from the "Synar Amendment" to the 1992 federal Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Mental Health Administration Reorganization Act, requiring that states enact and enforce laws prohibiting the sale of tobacco to minors). There is no reason to believe that today's relatively high level of compliance would collapse with the higher age limit.
Maryland has raised taxes on cigarettes, and that has led to a decrease in smoking. This new law would not raise taxes and would not cost anything to implement. And it would not potentially involve law enforcement just because an 18 to 20 year old happened to be smoking a cigarette.
The ultimate reason to pass a 21 bill? Tobacco kills, and it's still the No. 1 cause of preventable disease in our state. Annually, about 7,000 Marylanders die of tobacco-related diseases such as cancer, heart attacks, emphysema. Smoking kills more people than alcohol, AIDS, car crashes, illegal drug use, murders and suicides combined. And most of the monumental costs of tobacco addiction are paid for by employers and taxpayers — in effect, all of us.
Maryland has been in the vanguard of actions to curb smoking. The missing step has been the surest and fairest way to substantially reduce the number of rising adults who become addicted to tobacco: restricting its sale to those 21 and over, with a three-year phase-in period. By supporting this legislation, Maryland citizens will benefit, and the state will be a leader again.
Frederick N. Mattis is a writer and consultant in Annapolis. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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