Younger smokers could soon find it harder to get their hands on cigarettes, e-cigarettes and other tobacco products in Texas.
Texas lawmakers are considering increasing the legal age to buy or use tobacco products from 18 to 21, except for military members, who could still buy them at the age of 18.
“It’s time for our state to do what it can to protect our youth from a lifetime of nicotine addiction, from a lifetime struggling with chronic disease and from a lifetime cut short because of tobacco,” John Carlo, chairman of the Texas Public Health Coalition, said in a statement.
Senate Bill 21, which raises the legal minimum age to buy tobacco in Texas to 21, also would increase the age limit for proof of identification from 27 to to 30.
“It’s been almost 40 years since the tobacco industry was quoted calling ‘today’s teenagers’ ‘tomorrow’s potential regular customer’ — and yet, here we are, still having this fight,” Carlo said.
Statistics show about 95 percent of smokers start before the age of 21.
And health officials say the key to stopping younger Texans from smoking before they start is to raise the legal age to buy tobacco and e-cigarette products.
This comes at a time when about 7.4 percent of Texas high school students smoke and more than 10 percent use e-cigarettes. E-cigarette use by high school students grew by 78 percent in 2018.
So far, around a dozen states — including California, Illinois, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Oregon, Hawaii, Maine and Virginia — have raised the tobacco sale age to 21, as have hundreds of cities, according to the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids. On Thursday, Sen. Mitch McConnell announced he plans to introduce legislation to raise the national smoking age to 21.
Critics say this bill is a clear example of government overreach.
Texas lawmakers have until the end of their legislative session, May 27, to pass laws.
A campaign to raise the age to buy tobacco, known as Texas 21, notes that 10,400 youth become daily smokers every year, and if the trend continues, nearly half a million Texas youth will die early from smoking.
Smoking costs Texas $8.85 billion in direct health care costs, nearly $2 billion in Medicaid costs and $8.22 billion in lost productivity, according to Texas 21.
At the same time, cigarette and tobacco taxes still generate big bucks for the state.
In the 2018 fiscal year, the taxes generated $1.32 billion for the state, compared with $1.52 billion in 2017, $1.38 billion in 2016, $1.53 billion in 2015 and $1.34 billion in 2014, records from the Texas Comptroller’s office show.
“Senate Bill 21 will save lives and is an investment in Texas’ future,” Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick wrote in a statement. He listed raising the smoking age in Texas as one of his top 30 priorities.
“Increasing the age to purchase tobacco products in Texas to 21 will not only improve public health and save countless lives — it will save Texans billions of dollars in health care costs.”
Altria, the parent company for Philip Morris USA, John Middleton and US Smokeless Tobacco Company, supports raising the minimum age to purchase tobacco products to 21, according to written testimony submitted to the Legislature by Jennifer Hunter, senior vice president of Altria. “Our companies have long supported legislation to prevent underage access to tobacco products.”
If the bill becomes law, it would go into effect Sept. 1.
The bill faced criticism from some conservatives who didn’t believe younger members of the military who frequently cross state lines should be be prevented from buying and using e-cigarettes or tobacco when they are in Texas.
So, state senators carved out an exception, making sure anyone between the of 18 and 21 who serves in the military would not be impacted by this measure.
Maryland is among the states that have passed similar bills to raise the age to buy tobacco to 21, but also made an exception for the military.
“To say that people in the military, if they’re 19 or 21, can’t smoke a cigarette or a cigar, to me was an affront,” Republican Sen. Michael Hough, who asked for the military exception in Maryland, told the Baltimore Sun.
Texas 21 is among those opposing this change to the proposed law.
“The minimum age of military service does not equal readiness to enlist in a lifetime of nicotine addiction,” according to a Texas 21 statement. “Tobacco use is not a sign of adulthood, but does come with lasting health effects that extend well into adulthood.”
Electronic cigarettes — also known as e-cigarettes or e-vaporizers — are battery operated devices used to inhale an aerosol with nicotine, flavors or chemicals.
The devices are not always easy to spot because they can look like pens or USB memory sticks.
E-cigarette use grew by 1.5 million youth between 2017-18, according to a report from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The U.S. Surgeon General has called e-cigarette use among youths an “epidemic.”
Michael Steinert, assistant superintendent of student support services for Fort Worth schools, said raising the smoking age should help cut down on the problem.
“Vaping has become an increasing concern at all of our schools,” Steinert said, explaining that they increasingly are finding devices used for tobacco and THC (the chemical found in marijuana).
“You can use the same device for tobacco or THC,” he said, noting that students caught with the equipment face suspensions. If caught with THC, they also face criminal charges for possessing an illegal substance.
Fort Worth schools are training more teachers about vaping and how to spot the devices. Arlington Heights, North Side and Paschal high schools have held training sessions with teachers.
And Fort Worth parents have been invited to a presentation at Arlington Heights High School called “Vaping and Your Student.” The presentation originally was scheduled for April 17, but was rescheduled for 6 p.m. April 24 because of weather concerns.
Steinert said the issue is not a simple one and, even if the legal age to purchase tobacco and e-cigarettes is raised, retailers need to have good procedures in place to verify the age of young people buying these products.
“Kids find out that there are certain stores that will card you and some that won’t,” Steinert said. “Any law is only as good as the enforcement of it.”