NMC Commentary

Should the Age for Tobacco Use be Raised to 21?

Yes. It is a matter of health and economics, both of which are serious concerns in Vermont.  Tobacco continues to be “the leading cause of preventable death” and to make matters even worse, if that is possible, “for every person who dies because of smoking, at least 30 people live with a serious smoking-related illness” according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  As we individuals, business leaders, healthcare providers, and Legislators work together to create public policy to help improve population health, it is crucial that we take real and meaningful steps to reduce tobacco use by preventing the addiction to it from starting in the first place.  Raising the age of purchase for tobacco products to 21 is an important step for Vermont to take as it will mean fewer of our young people have access to ‘bumming cigarettes’ from their just-older friends.  Data shows that just the delay between starting smoking at 15, 16, 17, or 18 and starting in at 21 makes a difference in likelihood that a young person will ever actually start.  We have taken this step with alcohol and while it is not perfect, we are better off because of it.  The time is now for our elected officials in Montpelier to do what is best for the health of Vermonters and raise the tobacco purchase age to 21.

As this issue is discussed, the conversation often turns to the importance to taxes on cigarettes sold to 18 and 19 year olds to the state budget.  Young people addicted to tobacco purchase cigarettes on a regular basis, making them a tragically attractive target market for cigarette companies and some retailers.  Yes, raising the age of tobacco to match that of alcohol would reduce those sales. It would cost Vermont about $180,000 in tax revenue and might prompt some 18 or 19 year olds in border towns to drive down the street and a New Hampshire mini-mart would reap the profit of selling to them.  That is a cost to Vermont.  It is a cost we must absorb as we work to use prevention to reduce other larger, more hurtful costs.  These figures are staggering.  The CDC data shows that the United States spends nearly $170 BILLION EACH YEAR “in direct medical care” for smoking and another $156 billion due to “premature death and exposure to secondhand smoke.”  Illnesses and resulting healthcare costs from secondhand smoke? That is each of us and our children.  That is money right out of our pockets.  Within our healthcare system, we are all subsidizing those healthcare costs for people using tobacco and we are paying for the secondhand impacts.  Is the tax revenue from selling to 18, 19, and 20 year olds worth far higher healthcare costs and all those preventable deaths?  That’s easy.  No.

One of the questions I hear as we discuss the importance of raising the tobacco age to 21 to match the alcohol age is….If I am old enough to defend our country shouldn’t I be able to smoke?    I have deep respect for those who serve our country through our military.  This is a worthy consideration and one that actually brings us back to raising the age for tobacco to 21.  I was moved by the perspective of Rear Admiral John Fuller of the United States Navy who took a different approach to the ‘old enough to die in the military, old enough to smoke’ position. The Coalition for a Tobacco Free Vermont shared that Rear Admiral Fuller said, “If someone is young enough to fight for their country, they should be free from addiction to a deadly drug. [Being tobacco free] is one of the best things we can do to improve fitness and readiness.”  His role is to keep his soldiers safe in the face of hostility and danger.  It is important to see that he carries that duty over to doing what we can to keep our soldiers safe from the dangers of tobacco – the number one cause of preventable death.  Hawaii, Rear Admiral Fuller’s region for the Navy, put the Tobacco 21 law into effect January 1.  Joint command in Hawaii opted to align with the state law and banned the sale and use for members under 21 on all bases.  That is leadership in action to save lives, reduce healthcare costs, and improve health.  A healthy mind and healthy body allows you to lead a productive happy life.

Public policy is a very important tool in improving population health.  It is time to use public policy to support the tireless efforts of healthcare providers who are working with Vermonters to help them break free of the grip of tobacco. It is time to raise the age of tobacco purchase to 21, matching it with the age of alcohol purchase. Please reach out to our legislators and ask them to support Tobacco 21.  It will mean better health and fewer deaths from tobacco….to me that is more important than the loss in taxes on sales of cigarettes to 18, 19 and 20 year olds. Let’s be a community focused on wellness — as a result, the money will come in new ways.

— Jill Berry Bowen, NMC’s Chief Executive Officer