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Commentary: Pulling Smokes from Teenage Hands

By Sandra Zichterman in Opinion

The legal smoking age should be raised to 21.

Washington state Attorney Gen. Bob Ferguson introduced a bill earlier this year that would do just that.

Yes, there are economic reasons not to support this bill, which will require eventual approval by lawmakers throughout Washington.

But overwhelmingly, it’s a good law for a number of reasons.

The bill would hopefully reduce young-adult and high-school-student smokers, resulting in fewer  adult smokers in the future.

That’s just what happened in a Boston suburb, according to an article on slate.com. After Needham, Mass., passed a law outlawing tobacco use under the age 21 in 2005, the adult smoking rate was 56 percent lower than the overall rate in Massachusetts.

According to a survey published in the American Journal of Public Health, more than 80 percent of adult smokers start the habit before they turn 18.

Clark economics professor Shon Kraley said that rising the legal smoking age from 18 is the best way to reduce smoking.

Marcia Roi, who is a professor of addiction counseling at Clark, said because young adult brains are still developing, it is easier to rationalize smoking and ignore the risks. One of the problems she noted is that smoking permanently rewires the brain.  The result is constant cravings for nicotine even after someone quits.

According to Roi, after someone has four or more cigarettes, there is a 94 percent chance they will become addicted.

Clark student Muhammad Alsuraij started smoking when he was about 16 and has been smoking for seven years. He is from Saudi Arabia where it’s legal to smoke at any age.

Alsuraij said he supports the bill but added that “if [young adults] want to do it, they will do it.”  He said that it’s just like alcohol; there are many underage drinkers that find a way to get alcohol.

“They will get cigarettes anyway,” he said.

However, if the state limits access, young adults will undeniably have a more difficult time acquiring tobacco products and ultimately reduce their use.

The bill would cost the state $20 million a year from lost tax revenues. Washington has the fifth highest cigarette tax in the country and 22.1 percent of the state’s smokers are between the ages 18-24, according to cdc.gov.

If this bill is passed it is likely that these numbers would go down.

Washington is not the first state to introduce legislation to raise the smoking age. Utah, New Jersey and Colorado have all tried to pass the same bill.

But so far no state has successfully raised the smoking age, fearing of lost tobacco-sales tax revenue.

While the savings from health care costs would take decades to make the new regulation financially worthwhile, this bill remains a good idea.

Each year, an estimated 443,000 people die prematurely from smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke, and another 8.6 million live with a serious illness caused by smoking.

The number of lives saved from tobacco is endlessly worth it.

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