By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS


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It’s an issue lighting up legislative bodies across the country this year: Raising the minimum age to sell tobacco products.

Legislation to increase the purchase age to 21 has been introduced in more than a dozen states and in Congress since the beginning of the year, and several additional states may see similar proposals pop up in their law-making sessions in coming weeks.

In California, the state assembly approved a bill in early March to raise the tobacco purchase age to 21. The bill currently awaits the signature of Gov. Jerry Brown before it can take effect and make California one of two states in the country with the highest legal age for tobacco products. Hawaii got the ball rolling on the issue last year when it passed its law in June.

Outside of Hawaii, the current minimum age for tobacco sales is 18, except in four states. In Alabama, Alaska, New Jersey and Utah, the minimum age is 19.

Numerous cities – including San Francisco, Boston, Chicago and New York City – have upped their minimum cigarette sales age to 21. Supporters argue that such laws can help delay youth from getting hooked on smoking, and possibly even prevent them from ever trying the addictive products.

Momentum around laws to increase the tobacco sales age has been building recently over the past year, with passage of the legislation in Hawaii, and now California, providing a stronger push behind the cause.

About two years ago, only 15 cities had passed legislation to increase the minimum age to 21. Now, more than 130 municipalities across the country have done so, according to Tom Geist, regional director for Tobacco 21, an organization advocating for a national change.

“Initial public support has been great for these measures and the implementation of something like this is quite a bit easier than an indoor smoking ban,” Geist said. “Cities also are more immune to Big Tobacco’s influence.”

The states where legislation to increase the sales age to 21 has been introduced this year are: Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia.

In New Jersey, the state legislature voted in January to raise the age from 19 to 21, but Gov. Chris Christie “pocket vetoed” the bill by choosing not to sign the measure into law. Fifteen localities in New Jersey already have raised the legal age of tobacco and e-cigarette sales to 21.

In addition to tobacco-related industries and many convenience store retail associations, opponents of the effort include those who see it as a contradiction to tell people who are under 21 that they can’t buy tobacco products – but are old enough to drive, vote or enlist in the military.

“I’m not a fan of smoking and don’t myself, but I think our government is way too much of a nanny state,” said California Assemblyman Donald Wagner, explaining his opposition to the state’s bill to raise the minimum age.

“In almost every way, we say an 18-year-old is mature enough to make important and very personal decisions, from little things like getting a tattoo to big things like joining the military and going off and dying for your country,” he said. “To say, ‘OK, except when it comes to smoking, you can’t make that personal choice. You’re not wise enough, you’re not mature enough,’ I think, is an overreach of government.”

According to a March 2015 report released by the Institutes of Medicine, raising the legal tobacco sales age to 21 nationwide would reduce smoking rates by 12 percent and result in about 223,000 fewer premature deaths and 50,000 fewer lung cancer deaths among those born between 2000 and 2019.

In addition, an article published last October in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine reported that three out of four American adults – and seven in 10 smokers – favor raising the minimum age of tobacco sales to 21.