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Maryland lawmakers consider raising the age to buy tobacco from 18 to 21

Maryland lawmakers consider raising the age to buy tobacco from 18 to 21
In this Dec. 1, 2016, file photo, processed tobacco heads down the line at a tobacco company in Danville, Virginia. (Matt Bell / AP)

An effort to raise the minimum age for buying tobacco to 21 is gaining momentum in Maryland.

Legislation to raise the age limit has floundered for years, but picked up support this year from the Democratic leaders of the House of Delegates and state Senate, as well as from the Legislative Black Caucus.

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“It doesn’t stop anyone from smoking. We’re not telling folks, ‘Don’t smoke.’ We’re just saying we want to slow that process down for people to fully understand what they’re embarking on,” said Del. Darryl Barnes, a Prince George’s Democrat who chairs the caucus.

Sen. Delores Kelley, a Baltimore County Democrat who has sponsored the bill for years, said young people don’t know what they’re getting into with cigarettes — and more recently, flavored e-cigarettes.

“Kids think that they’re doing something cool,” she said, but they may not realize how addictive and dangerous tobacco products are.

The legislation would apply to all types of tobacco products, including cigarettes, cigars, smokeless tobacco, e-cigarettes and vaping devices. Retailers would have to post signs warning that the products can be sold only to those age 21 or older. The bill wouldn’t change the penalty for selling tobacco to those under age, currently a fine that begins at $300 for a first offense.

There’s a growing trend toward raising the age to purchase tobacco products to 21, putting it in line with buying alcohol and gambling. Six states have raised the tobacco purchase age to 21, and neighboring Virginia just approved legislation to raise the age limit, too.

And it’s a popular idea among the public: A new poll of more than 800 Maryland residents by Goucher College found 66 percent support raising the age limit to 21. Thirty-one percent oppose the change.

Even with momentum, the proposal faces opposition in the state capital.

Lobbyist Bruce Bereano represents the Maryland Association of Tobacco and Candy Distributors. He said he’ll argue that the current law limiting sales and use to smokers 18 and older isn’t enforced, so raising the age wouldn’t keep tobacco out of the hands of young people.

And besides, he said, it doesn’t make sense to allow people to make some key decisions at 18 — such as joining the military, signing contracts and voting — but not allow them to smoke.

“It presumes that no one who is under 21 years of age has the intelligence or the mental capacity to think and make decisions for themselves,” Bereano said. “It’s a proposed policy that is quite contradictory with many other things that go on.”

Dr. Laurence Polsky, Calvert County’s health officer, said it’s good public health policy to restrict young people’s access to addictive substances such as tobacco and alcohol.

“The parts of the brain that are susceptible to addiction are still developing all the way through the late teens and early 20s,” said Polsky, who is the legislative chairman for the Maryland Association of County Health Officers.

Research indicates that people who become hooked on tobacco in their younger years end up as heavier users later in life and have a more difficult time quitting, Polsky said. Nearly 90 percent of adult tobacco users became addicted before they turned 18, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Cutting off sales of tobacco to those who are 18, 19 and 20 would drive down use in that age group but also among those who are younger, Polsky said. That’s because younger teenagers often get cigarettes or vaping products from older siblings or classmates who buy the tobacco products legally, according to a 2015 report from the National Academy of Medicine.

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Polsky said the rapid growth in popularity of e-cigarettes and vaping products, which are regulated as tobacco products, has drawn more scrutiny to tobacco sales and use.

Tobacco use by teens is increasing, driven largely by e-cigarettes, which are the most commonly used tobacco product, according to the CDC. From 2017 until 2018, e-cigarette use among high school students — as measured by use in the last 30 days — increased from about 12 percent to 21 percent, according to CDC data.

“The proliferation of vaping products has probably grabbed more people’s attention,” Polsky said.

The most popular e-cigarette brand in America is JUUL, according to the U.S. surgeon general’s office, which issued a warning in December about youth e-cigarette use. Health advocates criticize the product, launched in 2015, because it is small and looks like a USB flash drive, making it easy for young people to hide. Third-party manufacturers make brightly colored wraps for the JUUL pods called “skins,” similar to cell phone covers.

The makers of JUUL support increasing the minimum age to buy their products in Maryland.

“We are committed to preventing youth access of JUUL products, and no young person or nonnicotine user should ever try JUUL,” said Ted Kwong, a spokesman for JUUL Labs Inc., which is based in San Francisco.

The company says it has started an “action plan” to deter interest from young people. It includes placing ads that promote the product as only for adults who already smoke cigarettes. The company also discontinued selling some of its flavored pods in retail stores and closed its Facebook and Instagram accounts.

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