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Editorial: Increase smoking, vaping age to 21 in Maryland

The American Lung Association recently released its State of Tobacco Control report for Maryland, giving it passing grades for some initiatives, and failing grades in others.

Regarding the strength of smoke-free workplace laws, Maryland earned an “A,” and received a “B” when it comes to coverage and access to services to quit tobacco. But the state received failing grades when it comes to the level of state tobacco taxes, funding for state tobacco prevention programs, and a minimum age of 21 for sale of tobacco products.

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Increasing the minimum age for purchasing and using tobacco products is an idea we can get behind, and think most Marylanders, even those who smoke, would as well.

As of early January, six states — California, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Oregon, Hawaii and Maine — had raised the age to legally buy tobacco to 21, and 430 other localities from counties and small towns, to big cities like New York, Chicago, Boston and Washington, D.C., have done so as well.

There is mounting evidence that raising the minimum age from 18 to 21 to legally purchase and use tobacco products will reduce use among young people. Nearly all smokers start as kids or young adults, and because of the addictive nature of nicotine — especially on still-developing adolescent brains — continue well into adulthood.

Nine out of 10 cigarette smokers first tried smoking by age 18, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and about 95 percent of adult smokers began before turning 21, per the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

Less than half of adult smokers become regular, daily smokers before 18, but approximately 80 percent do become regular smokers before they turn 21, making those three years a crucial time.

By raising the legal age of tobacco use to 21, it will theoretically help prevent young people from ever starting this nasty habit and, in the long run, reduces the diseases and deaths that are associated with tobacco use.

Raising the legal age will also help keep tobacco out of high schools, where research shows youth often turn to older friends and classmates as sources of cigarettes.

The American Lung Association goes a step further, too, calling not just on raising the minimum age for tobacco use to 21, but also make 21 the minimum age to purchase and use electronic cigarette and vaping products, such as Juul. We support this as well.

The CDC’s 2018 National Youth Tobacco Survey found a 78 percent increase in high school e-cigarette use from 2017 to 2018, which translates to approximately new 1 million kids trying e-cigarettes. In December, the U.S. surgeon general declared e-cigarette use among young people an epidemic.

While evidence exists that e-cigs are an effective cessation tool for longtime cigarette smokers and tobacco users, the health effects of chemicals and flavorings in so-called “vape juices” are still being debated. Some of the vape juices contain as much nicotine as a full pack of cigarettes.

While not as dangerous as tar or other substances in tobacco cigarettes, nicotine can still have long-term damaging effects on developing brains and cardiovascular health. There is also evidence that teens who vape are four to seven times more likely to smoke traditional cigarettes later in life.

Maryland has been fairly forward-thinking in taking steps to decrease tobacco use in our state and save lives in the process. This seems like a no-brainer, and we would encourage our legislators to follow the lead of other jurisdictions and increase the minimum age to purchase tobacco and e-cigarettes to 21.

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