February 23, 2020
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Raising tobacco purchase age to 21 will save lives and money

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (right) mingles at Becky's Diner in Portland with Maine Gov. Paul LePage in tow, July 1, 2015.

Last month, New Jersey became the third state to raise the legal age for tobacco purchases to 21. Maine should become the fourth.

In June, Maine lawmakers easily passed a bill to do just that and voted again in late July to send the bill to the governor after financial issues were resolved. Gov. Paul LePage told WVOM last week that he vetoed the bill, which would raise from 18 to 21 the legal age for the purchase of tobacco products and electronic smoking devices. The governor did not actually sign a letter vetoing LD 1170 until Tuesday.

Lawmakers should override this veto when they return to Augusta on Wednesday.

LePage’s rationale for opposing an increase in the tobacco purchase age is that Mainers can join the military — and be sent to war — at 18, so they should be allowed to purchase cigarettes, too. They are “mature enough to make their own decision,” LePage said.

In fact, brain research refutes this argument. The prefrontal cortex, the portion of the brain responsible for decision making, is one of the last areas of the brain to fully develop and is still developing during adolescence. Second, smoking impairs brain development.

So, as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie notes, raising the age for tobacco purchases makes sense from a health — and financial — perspective.

“By raising the minimum age to purchase tobacco products to 21, we are giving young people more time to develop a maturity and better understanding of how dangerous smoking can be and that it is better to not start smoking in the first place,” Christie said in a statement after signing into a law a measure to raise the tobacco purchase age from 19 to 21 in that state.

“My mother died from the effects of smoking, and no one should lose their life due to any addictive substance,” he added. “Additionally, the less people who develop costly tobacco habits that can cause health problems, such as lung cancer, heart disease and developmental issues, the less strain there will be on our healthcare system.”

Every day, 3,200 youth under the age of 18 smoke their first cigarette, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. About 2,100 of them will begin the habit of smoking every day.

The Institute of Medicine projects that tobacco use would drop by 12 percent with the legal age set at 21. Although it would take years for the full health effects to be known, the institute’s modeling shows the result would be 223,000 fewer premature deaths and 50,000 fewer lung cancer deaths among those born between 2000 and 2019.

According to a March 2015 report by the institute, about 90 percent of smokers say they began before age 19. Raising the age to 21 would have a significant effect on high school-age smokers and potential smokers because their 18- to 20-year-old peers no longer would be able to legally purchase tobacco for them.

This isn’t just a theory. A decade ago, Needham, Massachusetts, became the first U.S. community to raise its tobacco purchase age to 21. The adult smoking rate in Needham is now half that of Massachusetts as a whole. The mortality rates from lung cancer in the community are significantly lower than in Massachusetts generally. Most important, a survey by the MetroWest Health Foundation found that the smoking rate among high school students in Needham was significantly lower than in surrounding communities, where the tobacco purchase age remained 18.

The science is clear. Raising the tobacco purchase age to 21 will save and improve lives. Lawmakers should override LePage’s veto to make this common-sense law change.

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