Clay Polak, 20, takes a break to smoke a cigarette in Chicago earlier this year. Raising the age one can buy tobacco products from 18 years to 21 years has become a national issue.
Clay Polak, 20, takes a break to smoke a cigarette in Chicago earlier this year. Raising the age one can buy tobacco products from 18 years to 21 years has become a national issue. (Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)

In 1982, Maryland raised the age to purchase and consume all alcoholic beverages to 21. Opponents of the measure argued that if an 18-year-old was old enough to serve in the military, the teen was old enough to drink a beer. The argument didn’t go far: Too many young people were dying in alcohol-related traffic accidents to worry about how good a time their enlisted peers might be having on weekends. The tavern owners lost, the public had won — and then-Gov. Harry R. Hughes happily signed the bill into law.

In the coming weeks, lawmakers in Annapolis will face a similar historic choice over whether to raise the age to purchase and consume tobacco from 18 to 21. The circumstances could not be more similar. In early December, the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland announced its support for restricting access to tobacco products to 21, a fitting alliance given the devastation tobacco has wrought on the African American community. And make no mistake, the costs to the nation have been high for all: Tobacco kills over 480,000 Americans per year, which is more than car crashes, opioid addiction and gun violence combined. An estimated 95 percent of addicted smokers started before age 21.


The Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland is concerned about the toll smoking has taken on the African-American community and is leading an effort to impose

Think access to tobacco in the teen years is not a risk on the same level as alcohol? You’re right. It’s worse. According to the Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation, some 5.6 million young people alive today face having their lives shortened by tobacco unless something is done. Tobacco addiction is not just a scourge that starts in young adulthood, it’s a problem that is worsening. Studies show nicotine use, particularly when you factor in e-cigarettes, is on the upswing in high school. The average age for someone’s first cigarette is 13.7 years old — and it’s usually supplied by someone between the ages of 18 and 20.

Tobacco retailers and manufacturers will no doubt argue that 18 has been the entry level for tobacco for generations and rail against the “nanny state” that would take that option away. Similar claims were made 36 years ago about alcohol. But here’s the reality: Teen purchases of tobacco products make up just a sliver of demand — somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 percent — yet raising the minimum age to purchase tobacco to 21 would result in 15 percent fewer people under 21 initiated into smoking, according to an Institute of Medicine report. That means a small sacrifice by vendors yields a tremendous return for families.

That’s why the “Tobacco 21” crusade has been winning over converts across the country. Already, six states have raised the age to buy tobacco to 21 as have more than 360 cities and counties. Unfortunately, not one of them is in Maryland. State law doesn’t allow localities to set their own tobacco rules. Maryland has certainly demonstrated a willingness to tax tobacco products — its $2 per pack cigarette tax is 14th highest among states, according to the Tax Foundation. And that’s been helpful to reducing child access but not enough.

Unfortunately, there’s a real danger that lawmakers in Annapolis may be reluctant to raise the tobacco age to 21 because it would cause a drop in tax revenue. Maryland’s comptroller has estimated that the state would take a $10.5 million to $15.6 million annual hit. But that would be an outrageous trade-off of lives for money (and it’s not even a real trade-off given the health care costs and lost productivity associated with tobacco use is measured in the billions of dollars). Even use of e-cigarettes or “vaping,” while possibly less harmful than cigarettes, is a threat to young people: They contain toxic substances, users can develop nicotine addiction, and they may make young people more likely to smoke, not less likely, according to a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine study.

Each day, an estimated 350 kids under age 18 become regular, daily smokers, one-third of whom will eventually die from smoking, the Surgeon General has estimated. Saving those young lives — even at the cost of tax revenue or cigarette sales — would seem a perfectly reasonable trade-off — much as delaying the legal age to buy a beer or a glass of wine was the right thing to do a three and a half decades ago.