Op-Ed from the office of Senator Carlos Uresti

September 17, 2010
Mark Langford at 210-932-2568

Raising the smoking age could break the cycle of addiction

By Sen. Carlos Uresti

Despite the mountain of evidence against tobacco use and increased awareness of its deadly effects, cigarette smoking persists across Texas to the great detriment of individuals and society as a whole.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, almost one in five Texans age 18 and older are regular smokers -- that's more than 3.2 million people who are putting their own health and lives on the line, and perhaps endangering others with second-hand smoke.

Particularly troubling -- because it seems to be at the heart of the problem -- is the smoking rate among those under age 18. The 2010 CDC data found that more than 9% of Texas adolescents admitted to smoking less than 30 days prior to the survey date. Unfortunately, many of these kids are unwittingly laying the foundation for a lifelong addiction.

Research has shown that simply delaying access to smoking reduces the risk of adolescents becoming addicted during their most formative years. The best way to accomplish this change would be to raise the legal smoking age by just one year -- from 18 to 19. In the next session of the Legislature, I will try to do just that.

Here's why it's important. According to those studies, the earlier someone tries smoking for the first time, the higher their risk of ultimately becoming a regular smoker, and the less likely they are to eventually quit. In fact, nearly 80 percent of adult smokers started the habit before the age of 18, and 90 percent did so before turning 20.

These facts make it essential to minimize exposure to cigarettes as much as possible during this crucial age range. That's difficult to do when 18-year-olds can legally purchase cigarettes, then bring them to school and hand them out to their younger friends.

In fact, most underage smokers do not purchase cigarettes for themselves. One study revealed around 60 percent get their cigarettes from other sources, and a significant amount has others buy cigarettes for them. Raising the smoking age, then, would limit availability to the vast majority of high school students, most of who have graduated by the time they turn 19. With this decrease in availability would come a corresponding decrease in accessibility for underage adolescents.

So by raising the legal smoking age to 19, this devastating cycle of youthful experimentation and addiction could be broken.

Raising the smoking age would provide other benefits as well. A staggering 503,000 kids currently under 18 in Texas are estimated to die prematurely from cigarette use. And annual healthcare costs in Texas associated with complications from smoking are $5.83 billion, with estimated "productivity losses," which factor in missed work time due to smoking-related illnesses, reaching nearly $7 billion.

Opponents of raising the legal smoking age argue that it would lead to decreased tax revenues from cigarette sales, reducing the amount of money for the Property Tax Relief Fund. While this is true -- the loss would have totaled more than $12.5 million in the 2010-2011 biennium, according to the Legislative Budget Board -- the decreased healthcare costs from fewer smoking-related illnesses would eventually more than make up that deficit.

Raising the legal smoking age to 19 will save thousands of people from an expensive and harmful addiction, and will likely result in substantial savings through decreased healthcare costs. If you agree that the law should be changed, let other legislators know how you feel. Working together, we can help steer future generations away from the scourge of tobacco.