Tobacco at 21

Our view: Raising the minimum age to buy tobacco in Maryland from 18 to 21 would save lives and bring tobacco laws in line with alcohol restrictions

Over the last two decades, Maryland has raised the tax on tobacco three times, including a hefty $1 per cigarette pack boost in 2007. Each time, the argument has been the same: Raising the cost of tobacco discourages people, especially the young, from using it. Studies have repeatedly validated that approach. The percentage of high school age Marylanders who smoke has fallen from 12.5 percent in 2011 to 8.7 percent in 2015 while the number who use smokeless tobacco dropped from 7.2 percent to 5.8 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Yet youth use of tobacco remains a problem. Nationwide, about 3 million middle and high school students smoke, according to the U.S. Surgeon General. Recent studies suggest vaping with e-cigarettes, while safer than cigarettes, can be as addictive as tobacco products and using them can raise the chances a teen will eventually take up smoking, according to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. And smoking just one cigarette a day can shorten your life by raising the risk of heart disease, another recently published study found.

All of which begs a question: If the Maryland General Assembly is serious about stopping young people from using tobacco products and vaping, why not raise the minimum age to purchase and use tobacco from 18 to 21 years old? It’s an idea that is gaining popularity across the country. So far, five states — California, New Jersey, Oregon, Hawaii and Maine — have adopted the 21 standard, but it’s really taken off in cities. According to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, there are now at least 285 localities where you have to be 21 to use tobacco including New York, Chicago, Boston and Cleveland. Amazingly, not one town, county or city in Maryland has taken this approach.

That’s an embarrassment. Apparently, state lawmakers and local governments are only too happy to tax kids who buy tobacco on the pretense of saving their lives, but when it actually comes to standing between a high school student and a cigarette? Well, that’s too far. Perhaps the problem is, as the Maryland Comptroller’s office estimated last year, raising the minimum age would reduce tobacco tax revenue by $10.5 million to $15.6 million annually (even assuming one in five teens keeps smoking despite the law). Or maybe it offends the libertarian sensibilities of some shortsighted politicians despite the precedent for the sale and consumption of beer and wine, which was raised from 18 to 21 years old in Maryland in 1982.

Last month, state Sen. Delores G. Kelley, a Baltimore County Democrat, along with seven other senators, submitted legislation to raise Maryland’s minimum age to purchase tobacco. The chances of the bill getting very far aren’t especially good. It’s died every year in the Senate Finance Committee where it’s been assigned again this session. Why? It certainly won’t be because of lack of support from the medical community. Groups from the American Cancer Society and American Lung Association to the American Academy of Pediatrics and American Medical Association have endorsed such measures for the simple reason that keeping cigarettes out of the hands of minors reduces smoking-related deaths.

Maryland’s cancer rate may not be in the CDC top 10, but it’s not far off at 439.5 per 100,000 as of 2014. Reducing tobacco consumption might mean a slight dip in government tax yields, but it would be richly rewarding for those who live longer, healthier lives. If the argument is going to be that 18-year-olds deserve a freedom of choice, then why doesn’t that apply to alcohol use? That’s easy. Marylanders decided a generation ago (with encouragement from the federal government, of course) that the societal toll of underage drinking was too great to justify allowing young people to drink. Why can’t the same reasoning apply to those who smoke, chew or vape?

The health care costs associated with tobacco use are astronomical — about $170 billion annually. Each day, an estimated 350 kids under age 18 become regular, daily smokers, and about one-third will eventually die from smoking, the Surgeon General has estimated. Cutting off their supply would seem to be the least we could do. Tobacco companies will be just fine with 3.6 percent fewer customers, and so will the state budget with a few million less in tax revenue. After all, the whole point of the tobacco tax was to keep cigarettes away from young people, wasn’t it?

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