Tobacco to 21

Story by Lissette Minges, TSET Healthy Living Program Specialist

When it comes to smoking rates and tobacco control policies, Oklahoma has room for improvement. While Oklahoma’s current smoking rate of 19.6% is the lowest in state history, the lack of comprehensive smoke free policies at the state level leaves many Oklahomans, especially children, vulnerable to the dangers of tobacco use and secondhand smoke. According to tobacco21.org, tobacco kills over 480,000 people each year, which is more than automobile crashes, gun violence, and opiate overdoses combined. More than 95% of addicted smokers start before the age of 21, and 350 youth become regular smokers each day in the United States. For these reasons, and many others, states are beginning to raise the legal purchase age of tobacco from 18 to 21. The adolescent brain is particularly vulnerable to the effects of nicotine, and its early exposure can increase the risk of addiction, depression, anxiety, and other substance abuse. By increasing the age to purchase tobacco to 21, it can lengthen the lives of 5.6 million kids alive today.

The state of Hawaii became the first state to implement Tobacco 21 in 2015, which was a milestone for prevention efforts. It currently holds nearly average rates of high school and adult smoking prevalence. Their budget shows they spend over half of the CDC recommended amount on prevention. They are the leading state in tobacco prevention, and their legislature most recently proposed an increase in the legal smoking age to 100 by 2024, a mere 5 years from current legislation. The new bill proposes the smoking age should go up to 30 in 2020, 40 in 2021, 50 in 2022, and 60 in 2023 until reaching its final smoking age of 100 in 2024. The legislator proposing the bill used to be an emergency room physician and has seen the effects of cigarettes, calling them “the deadliest artefact in human history” (www.bbc.com). After their policy of Tobacco 21 was implemented, the number of children becoming daily smokers has dropped by 50%, to 500 each year (www.tobacco21.org). Hawaii is setting the standard for the rest of the country to follow, and Oklahoma is continuing to take steps in tobacco prevention as well.

On the 10th anniversary of Tobacco Stops With Me, TSET published a list of their goals for the next ten years, with Tobacco 21 being one main focus. Tobacco Stops With Me has begun highlighting how Oklahoma’s smoking policies stack up with neighboring states and national trends. Their focus is simple: to encourage Oklahomans to take an active role in helping to eliminate the dangers of tobacco. Oklahoma’s rate for both high school and adult smoking is above the national average and estimated at 88,000 children now under the age of 18 will die due to smoking and 2,100 of those children will become daily smokers each year. According to the CDC, the percentage of high school students using any tobacco product is 27.1% with 7.2% of the usage being from middle school students. Oklahoma spends roughly 57% of the CDC recommended amount on tobacco prevention from various programs of TSET, which is protected by state law. With preemption, Oklahoma does not allow for local Tobacco 21 laws as it requires state legislation change. It does leave room for local resolutions for Tobacco 21 in any community. Local government has the ability to pass a supportive resolution for Tobacco 21 at the state level. With enough support from local government, TSET, American Academy of Pediatrics, and the nonprofit Tobacco 21, changing the smoking age for Oklahoma is promising. In the current legislative session, a bill has been authored to ban e-cigarette use in all schools in Oklahoma. In most schools, this is already within their tobacco policy, but passing of this legislation will make it a requirement of all schools. The national average of e-cigarette usage among high school students is 20.8%, and 4.9% among middle school students (www.cdc.gov). Please consider calling your local board of health, city council member or county commissioner considering Tobacco 21 laws. All it takes is one or two phone calls or emails to support the movement to raise the age.

The following are ways Tobacco 21 can help:

  • Youth are susceptible to the addictive properties of nicotine because their brains are still developing.
  • The majority of smokers (90%) start before age 18. These young smokers often get their cigarettes from their older friends who can legally purchase them.
  • Raising the tobacco purchase age to 21 would ensure that older high school students and young college students cannot buy tobacco products for younger friends.
  • A purchase age of 21 is consistent with the laws for alcohol. Raising the legal drinking age to 21 has helped reduce drunk driving fatalities and reduced alcohol dependence among youth.

The current support for Tobacco 21 across the country reflects more than 360 cities and towns adopting Tobacco 21 laws. A federal Tobacco 21 law was first introduced in 2015, and six states, Washington DC, and one US territory have adopted Tobacco 21 laws: Hawaii, California, New Jersey, Maine, Oregon, Massachusetts, and Guam (www.tobacco21.org).

Data supports the benefits of increasing the smoking age to 21 for the state of Oklahoma in comparison to others states who have adopted such laws. For the local community, reach out to the local Payne County TSET Healthy Living Program to learn about how to make the community a healthier place to live and work for both youth and adults.

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