Raising the age to buy tobacco a smart move

Published 6:33 pm Thursday, April 18, 2019


The Advocate-Messenger

On the heels of legislation to make all school campuses in Kentucky tobacco-free, U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell has proposed another logical solution to help curb the increasing rates of teens using tobacco and e-cigarettes in Kentucky.

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The Louisville Courier-Journal reported Thursday that McConnell said he would soon file a bill to raise the legal age to buy any tobacco product to 21 nationwide.

There has been a rapid increase in vaping and e-cigarette use, which McConnell said prompted the proposed legislation.

E-cigarettes are battery-operated devices with liquid cartridges that produce vapor that users inhale, and most deliver a dose of nicotine higher even than cigarettes. Many of the devices use fruity- or sweet-flavored liquids that also appeal to young people.

As teens gain access to these devices — things like Juuls and vape machines — they are also becoming addicted to nicotine. Evidence indicates e-cigarettes are a gateway to cigarettes and other nicotine-packed tobacco products.

A U.S. Surgeon General’s report found e-cigarettes are now more common among teens than cigarettes.

“E-cigarettes entered the U.S. marketplace around 2007, and since 2014, they have been the most commonly used tobacco product among U.S. youth,” according to the report released in December. “E-cigarette use among U.S. middle- and high-school students increased 900 percent during 2011-15, before declining for the first time during 2015-17.”

However, e-cigarette use increased again, by 78 percent among high school students during the past year, from 11.7 percent in 2017 to 20.8 percent in 2018, the report found.

In 2018, more than 3.6 million U.S. youth, including 1 in 5 high school students and 1 in 20 middle school students, reported currently using e-cigarettes, the report also revealed.

As e-cigarette use continues to explode, so do the potential risks.

Beyond the addictive nature of nicotine, there are also dangers associated with the chemical.

The U.S. Surgeon General reports, “Nicotine exposure during adolescence can harm the developing brain — which continues to develop until about age 25. Nicotine exposure during adolescence can impact learning, memory and attention. Using nicotine in adolescence can also increase risk for future addiction to other drugs.”

As the landscape of tobacco use evolves, so must our legislative efforts to protect people from the dangers of smoking and nicotine addiction.

Kentucky particularly has a long past of being a state with a high percentage of smokers, and thus, a high percentage of smoking-related illnesses and deaths.

According to the Kentucky Health Issue Poll reported by the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, about 1 in 4 (23 percent) of Kentucky adults smoke cigarettes, higher than the national average of 17 percent.

Kentucky has the second highest rate of smoking in the country — behind only West Virginia.

Approximately 9,000 deaths each year in Kentucky are attributable to smoking.

Kentucky also has the second highest rate in the nation of high schoolers who smoke, according to the Coalition for a Smoke Free Tomorrow. In the U.S., 11 percent of high schoolers smoke on average. In Kentucky, that rate jumps to 17 percent, and 2,900 Kentucky children become new daily smokers each year.

According to the Coalition, 119,000 Kentucky children will die prematurely in adulthood from smoking if those rates are not reduced.

Beyond the physical aspects of smoking, there are extreme economic impacts as well.

According to the Truth Initiative, an organization dedicated to preventing smoking, in fiscal year 2017, Kentucky allocated $2.4 million in state funds to tobacco prevention, which is 4.2 percent of the CDC’s annual spending target.

The health care costs directly caused by smoking in Kentucky amounts to about $1.92 billion annually, and the state loses about $2.79 billion in productivity each year because of smoking.

In recent years, Kentucky has made strides to reduce tobacco use, including implementing a 50-cent per pack price increase in 2018 and passing the tobacco-free campus legislation this session.

This is another step lawmakers on the national level can take to protect teens and other U.S. citizens from the dangers of tobacco, vaping and e-cigarette use.

Any additional steps to curb tobacco use and thus reduce the life-long and even fatal risks associated with smoking are steps in the right directions.

Since Kentucky has such a long history of tobacco use, illnesses and deaths, it is great to see McConnell stepping up as a representative of the state to propose such legislation.

We hope to see this proposed legislation made law, to see fewer Kentuckians smoking and to reap the benefits of those much-needed social changes in our state.