Saying the state must do more to address smoking as the serious threat to public health that it is, Rep. Teresa Tanzi and Sen. Cynthia A. Coyne have introduced legislation to raise the minimum age to purchase tobacco products in Rhode Island from 18 to 21.
The legislation (2016-S 2410, 2016-H 7737) would apply to all tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes, and would take effect Jan. 1, 2017.
If passed, Rhode Island would become the second state to adopt 21 as the minimum age for tobacco purchases, after Hawaii, which enacted the change last year. Boston, New York City and 120 other municipalities across the country, including 80 in Massachusetts alone, have adopted local ordinances raising their tobacco purchase age to 21.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, tobacco use is started and established primarily during adolescence, and therefore preventing tobacco use among youth is critical to ending the tobacco epidemic in the United States, which is responsible for the deaths of 480,000 Americans annually. In Rhode Island, 1,800 adults die each year from their own smoking, and the state’s annual health care costs due to smoking are $639,604,224.
According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, more than 80 percent of all adult smokers begin smoking before the age of 18; and approximately 95 percent of all adult smokers began smoking before age 21.
Last year, a report by the Institute of Medicine for the Food and Drug Administration estimated that raising the age of tobacco purchase to 21 nationwide would result in a 25-percent reduction in youth smoking initiation, a 12-percent reduction in smoking rates overall, and 16,000 fewer preterm or low birth weight births in the first five years of the policy. The report estimated that such a policy throughout the United States would prevent 4.2 million years of life lost to smoking in children alive today. In another study, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control found that 75 percent of adults favor raising the tobacco age to 21, including 70 percent of smokers and 65 percent of those age 18 to 24.
The bill’s sponsors point to success in reducing youth smoking in communities that adopt higher age restrictions, and the positive effect that less smoking would have on Rhode Islanders’ health as well as public and private health care costs.
“Data tells us that 9 out of 10 adult smokers began smoking before age 21. Reducing youth access to tobacco products will lower tobacco addiction and reduce tobacco-related death and disease. Raising the tobacco purchase age to 21 will benefit the individual and society as a whole,” said Representative Tanzi (D-Dist. 34, South Kingstown, Narragansett), who also introduced the legislation last year. “Reducing opportunity and likelihood for addiction has obvious health benefits for that individual, as well as financial benefits for him or her and the family they might have in the future. But it also has health and financial benefits for society at large. Less smoking means fewer of the related health problems that drive up health care costs for individuals, businesses that pay for employees’ insurance, and the public, which subsidizes health care for some. It means families aren’t spending money on tobacco, and can spend it on goods and services locally. And it would eliminate it from schools entirely, which cuts down on the pressures that lure many into the habit in the first place. It’s an important step toward a healthier Rhode Island.”
Said Senator Coyne (D-Dist. 32, Barrington, Bristol, East Providence), “Smoking is a health burden that many smokers regret ever picking up. Evidence shows us that most smokers do start young, become addicted and then struggle with that addiction for years, if not the rest of their lives. But if reducing their access means they don’t start as a teen, perhaps by the time they are in their 20s, they aren’t as interested. We wait until people are 21 to grant them access to alcohol, because it’s dangerous and we want people to make mature decisions about it. But because cigarettes so quickly cause addiction that leads to potentially lethal health problems, they might be even more dangerous. Tobacco access should be treated with at least the same restrictions as alcohol.” Senator Coyne recently met with the BAY Team (formerly Barrington’s substance abuse task force) to discuss a grant it has received to work with their counterparts in Warren, Bristol and East Providence to implement better strategies to prevent children from getting retail access to tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes.
Changing the tobacco purchase age to 21 has the support of health advocates in Rhode Island and nationwide, including the American Lung Association, the American Heart Association and the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids. Rhode Island’s U.S. Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse last year cosponsored federal legislation to raise age to 21 nationwide.
“Raising the age of tobacco purchase from 18 to 21 will further lower smoking rates and prevent our children from becoming the next generation hooked on tobacco,” said Jeff Seyler, President and CEO of the American Lung Association of the Northeast. “We applaud Rep. Teresa Tanzi and Senator Cynthia Coyne for introducing this common sense legislation which has the potential to save many lives. We hope Rhode Island legislators will act swiftly on this bill so that Rhode Island can become the next state with a Tobacco 21 law on the books.”
“By raising the tobacco sale age to 21, Rhode Island can set a great example for the nation that will save lives and health care dollars and help make the next generation tobacco-free,” said Matthew L. Myers, President of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. “We know that 95 percent of adult smokers began smoking before they turned 21, and ages 18 to 21 are critical years when young people transition from experimenting with tobacco to becoming regular users. By enacting this legislation, Rhode Island will reduce smoking and protect young people from this deadly addiction.”
For the first time in decades, in 2014 overall nicotine and tobacco use increased among U.S. high school students. This is almost entirely due to an explosion in teen use of e-cigarettes, hookahs and vaping. Current e-cigarette use among middle and high school students has tripled from 2013 to 2014, according to data published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Center for Tobacco Products. This is the first time since the survey started collecting data on e-cigarettes in 2011 that current e-cigarette use has surpassed use of every other tobacco product, including conventional cigarettes.
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