Coalition seeks to raise smoking age to 21 in Texas

A Massachusetts high school student uses a vaping device earlier this year. The Texas 21 coalition, made up of several dozen health care organizations across Texas, is advocating raising the minimum age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21.

Proposed legislation to raise the legal age for buying cigarettes and other tobacco products from 18 to 21 in Texas is gaining support from hospitals and other health care organizations and even some smokers.

The Texas 21 coalition, made up of several dozen health care organizations across Texas, is advocating for the increase in the minimum age to buy tobacco products. The coalition says 10,400 Texas children under the age of 18 become new smokers each year and that 498,000 Texas children alive now will ultimately die prematurely from smoking.

Raising the age will reduce the financial burdens of treating lung cancer and other diseases of people who are uninsured or low income, said Mary Elizabeth Jackson, vice president of governmental affairs for Christus Health Northeast.

People who have insurance coverage end up paying higher premiums to offset costs incurred by the uninsured, Jackson said. She said tobacco use results in $300 billion a year in health care costs and lost productivity in America.

Jackson, who has an office in Tyler and serves a region that includes Longview and Marshall, said another benefit is standardizing the age for tobacco with the legal minimum age to buy alcohol, which already is 21.

“If you are 16 or 17, you don’t look 21,” Jackson said. “We are trying to delay the ability of teenagers to buy tobacco products. We are not prohibiting people from buying tobacco products.”

Kassim Abdullah, a former smoker who owns Smoke Fashion on East Marshall Avenue, said he agrees with raising the age for buying cigarettes to 21 for the same reason.

“(At) 21 and above, you can see that person is old enough,” said Abdullah, who does not sell cigarettes but sells cigars, e-cigarettes and tobacco accessories.

However, Abdullah said he opposes any proposal to raise the age to 21 for e-cigarettes, because they lack tobacco, even though they might contain nicotine, an ingredient contained in conventional cigarettes.

“It is not hurting you,” Abdullah said.

Meanwhile, Jackson’s employer, along with the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, the American Lung Association and other organizations have joined the Texas 21 coalition.

Texas 21 hosted a luncheon last week in Tyler to educate health professionals, grassroots advocates and the local community to review significant progress and the next steps the coalition is taking in the legislative session that begins in January.

To date, San Antonio is the lone city in Texas that has passed a local law increasing the minimum tobacco sales age to 21, according to information presented at the luncheon.

Making the age standard statewide would eliminate an incentive for adults younger than 21 to buy tobacco products in other jurisdictions where the legal age is 18, Jackson said.

“This year, what we are hoping for is a statewide mandate to raise the age for purchasing tobacco products.” she said.

That is the agenda for the coalition, which is asking for local efforts to be put on hold to focus on the statewide effort to change the law.

Dr. Bruce Carter, a radiologist at Tyler Radiology Associates, spoke at the luncheon, describing what he sees in his daily practice and how not smoking can prevent those diseases and conditions.

“We have to stop the initiation of smoking,” he said. “To prevent smoking, we need to raise awareness, initiate policy and prevent the use of tobacco.”

Carter presented information about stroke, hypertension, pneumonia and lung cancer.

He said 95 percent of smoking starts before the age of 21, and the medications to stop are not very effective. While cessation programs are successful, he said, it is extremely difficult for people to stop smoking.

One in four adults in Northeast Texas smokes, compared with a statewide average of 14 percent, said Charlie Gagen, Texas grassroots director of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.

Gagen, who is based in Austin, cited a study by the Institute of Medicine in 2015 that estimated raising the legal age for tobacco products would reduce smoking by 12 percent and deaths from smoking by 10 percent.

That amounts to 223,000 fewer premature deaths, Gagen said. He said roughly 500,000 people die each year in the United States from tobacco-related illnesses.

Gagen said he spoke this past week to the Longview Chamber of Commerce about the need to raise the minimum age to 21 and has gained support from the Tyler chamber.

Like Gagen and others who spoke at the lunch, Jackson at Christus Health Northeast gave reasons for raising the legal age.

“What we are trying to do is protect children’s brains until they are older and more mature,” Jackson said. “Until you are 25, your brain is very susceptible to any kind of addiction.”

Jackson said the higher age should apply to e-cigarettes and other tobacco products, in addition to cigarettes.

She cited a surgeon general’s report that said e-cigarette use of high school-age youths increased by 10 percent from 2011 to 2015.

Raising the legal age drew support Tuesday from Stephen McCormick, a downtown Longview hairstylist who said he has been smoking for 13 years.

Doing so will make tobacco less accessible for younger people, McCormick said.

McCormick, 28, of White Oak said he smokes a pack a day.

“It’s hard to quit (smoking),” he said. “I’ve tried, failed, tried again, failed.”

However, Tanner Neely, an occasional smoker who lives in Hallsville and is majoring in prelaw in a nearby college, said he is in favor of maintaining 18 as the legal age.

“I feel like if you are old enough to vote (at 18), old enough to die for your country, then you should have autonomy over your body,” Neely said.

“I understand both sides of it,” Neely said. “I understand people are more impressionable at an earlier age. My point is, you are considered a legal adult (at 18).”

Neely, who was contacted at Smoke Center on West Loop 281, said he was a heavy smoker when he turned 21 two years ago.

“But, then, I cut back,” he said. “I am not a complete quitter.”

For information about Texas 21, go to texas21.org .

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