Raise age for tobacco sale in Md. to 21

Here’s a sobering statistic: At current smoking rates, roughly 92,000 kids now under 18 in Maryland will die prematurely from smoking. Think for a moment of the unnecessary suffering, lost potential and devastated families left behind. But state lawmakers can act now to save many of these children from an uncertain future.

The Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland stands with the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN) and other leading public health organizations in support of proposed legislation that would raise Maryland’s age of sale for all tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes, to 21. This common-sense action will help curb tobacco use — and ultimately save lives.

Smoking remains the leading cause of preventable death in the country, claiming the lives of 7,500 people in Maryland annually and causing roughly 27 percent of all cancer deaths in the state. Tobacco use is also financially destructive, costing Maryland about $2.71 billion annually in health care costs.

Big Tobacco spends roughly $131 million each year in Maryland to aggressively market their products to hook future generations. Unfortunately, the “investment” they are making in our state is working only for them. The latest data shows more than 25,000 Maryland high schoolers smoke cigarettes and about 40,000 use e-cigarettes. The Maryland Department of Health further estimates that one in every three African American youths have tried e-cigarettes.

Decades of research affirms that the tobacco industry employs multiple campaigns and strategies to aggressively target and reach African Americans. As a result, smoking-related illnesses are the No. 1 cause of death in the African-American community. As an organization of 50 legislators that dedicates itself to the mission of ensuring that black people in Maryland are equally protected and benefited by the promises of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, there is no more important way for the Black Caucus to pursue that mission than by focusing on policies that benefit our children.

Given that 95 percent of adults who smoke began smoking before age 21, it’s clear that if kids stopped smoking the tobacco companies’ market of smokers would significantly shrink. Yet each day, about 2,000 kids try smoking for the first time, and more than 300 additional kids become regular daily tobacco users in this country, largely due to tobacco company marketing efforts.

Tobacco use is not a rite of passage or a sign of adulthood. And it is important to remember that age 18 is not the age of majority for other activities, such as buying alcohol. Increasing the tobacco sales age would help keep tobacco out of high schools, where younger teens often get these products from older classmates.

A 2015 report from the National Academy of Medicine estimates that raising the legal age of sale for tobacco products to 21 across the country could reduce smoking rates among 15 to 17 year olds by 25 percent. That single action would help cut smoking rates by 12 percent and smoking-related deaths by nearly 10 percent.

To date, California, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Oregon, Hawaii and Maine have all raised the tobacco sales age to 21, along with at least 350 localities including New York City, Chicago, San Antonio, Boston, Cleveland and Minneapolis. In the upcoming legislative session, Maryland’s lawmakers will have the opportunity to see that this state joins that growing list — thereby saving lives, reducing health care costs, fighting addiction and moving us toward a tobacco-free generation.

Maryland Del. Darryl Barnes, chair of the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland (Black.Caucus@house.state.md.us), submitted this piece in recognition of the American Cancer Society’s Great American Smokeout, which started 43 years ago as a day to encourage smokers to quit.

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