Saying the state must do more to address smoking as the serious threat to public health that it is, Rep. Teresa Tanzi introduced legislation to raise the minimum age to purchase tobacco products in Rhode Island from 18 to 21.
The legislation (2018-H 7647) would apply to all tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes, and would take effect upon passage. Sen. Cynthia A. Coyne (D-Dist. 32, Barrington, Bristol, East Providence) has introduced similar legislation (2018-S 2464) in the Senate.
If passed, Rhode Island would become the third state to adopt 21 as the minimum age for tobacco purchases, after Hawaii and California. Last year, Central Falls and Barrington adopted local ordinances prohibiting sales to those under 21, joining Boston and New York City among the more than 220 municipalities across the country with such ordinances.
Representative Tanzi points to success in reducing youth smoking in communities that adopt higher age restrictions, and the positive effect that less smoking would have on Rhode Islanders’ health as well as public and private health care costs.
“Data tells us that 9 out of 10 adult smokers began smoking before age 21. Reducing youth access to tobacco products will lower tobacco addiction and reduce tobacco-related death and disease. Raising the tobacco purchase age to 21 will benefit the individual and society as a whole,” said Representative Tanzi (D-Dist. 34, South Kingstown, Narragansett), who has been working since 2015 for the bill’s adoption. “Reducing opportunity and likelihood for addiction has obvious health benefits for that individual, as well as financial benefits for him or her and the family they might have in the future. But it also has health and financial benefits for society at large. Less smoking means fewer of the related health problems that drive up health care costs for individuals, businesses that pay for employees’ insurance, and the public, which subsidizes health care for some. It means families aren’t spending money on tobacco, and can spend it on goods and services locally. And it would mean no high school students could legally purchase tobacco products, which cuts down on the pressures that lure many into the habit in the first place. It’s an important step toward a healthier Rhode Island.”
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, most tobacco use is started and established primarily during adolescence, and therefore preventing tobacco use among youth is critical to ending the tobacco epidemic in the United States, which is responsible for the deaths of 480,000 Americans annually. In Rhode Island, 1,800 adults die each year from their own smoking, and the state’s annual health care costs due to smoking are about $640 million.
According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, more than 80 percent of all adult smokers begin smoking before the age of 18; and approximately 95 percent of all adult smokers began smoking before age 21.
The Institute of Medicine for the Food and Drug Administration estimated that raising the age of tobacco purchase to 21 nationwide would result in a 25-percent reduction in youth smoking initiation, a 12-percent reduction in smoking rates overall, and 16,000 fewer preterm or low birth weight births in the first five years of the policy. The report estimated that such a policy throughout the United States would prevent 4.2 million years of life lost to smoking in children alive today. In another study, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control found that 75 percent of adults favor raising the tobacco age to 21, including 70 percent of smokers and 65 percent of those age 18 to 24.
Changing the tobacco purchase age to 21 has the support of health advocates in Rhode Island and nationwide, including the American Lung Association, the American Heart Association and the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids. Rhode Island’s U.S. Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse have cosponsored federal legislation to raise age to 21 nationwide.