Renew our efforts to prevent teens from smoking

The OlympianMay 30, 2014 

Here’s a sobering fact to consider tomorrow on World No Tobacco Day, a World Health Organization designation for May 31 every year: Despite countless undisputed studies that document the negative personal health risks and societal effects of widespread tobacco use, smoking remains the No. 1 cause of preventable death in America.

A federal report estimates that smoking-related diseases cause $183 billion a year in annual health care costs and diminished productivity. That translates to hundreds of millions in the state of Washington, much of it funded by taxpayers through Medicaid.

Our nation has made great progress since the landmark 1964 U.S. Surgeon General’s report that smoking kills people, which resulted in a federal law restricting tobacco advertising and warning labels on cigarette packages.

But if we are determined to eradicate this deadly addiction, state and federal lawmakers must enact new aggressive measures to keep young people from starting to smoke.

Two states — Colorado and Utah — are considering legislation to raise the legal age for purchasing tobacco products to 21, as New York City and Hawaii County have done. In Washington and 46 other states, 18-year-olds can buy tobacco. The legal age is 19 in the other four.

Restricting our children’s access to tobacco, as we do alcohol, is something Washington state legislators should consider.

A report in the Journal Annals of Internal Medicine last year said 90 percent of daily smokers in the U.S. start smoking before age 18. According to the current surgeon general, a child’s first experience with cigarettes typically occurs in the sixth or seventh grade.

Big Tobacco targets young people for a reason: When people become hooked early, they are less likely to quit. Studies show that kids who make it to age 20 without a smoking habit probably won’t become smokers.

In 1982, an R.J. Reynolds researcher said in an internal memo, “If a man has never smoked by age 18, the odds are three-to-one he never will. By age 21, the odds are twenty-to-one.”

Raising the legal age has produced positive results in the United Kingdom.

But if that seems too politically unpopular for state lawmakers, they should at least stop robbing the 60-cent per pack cigarette tax voters approved in 2001 to spend on prevention and cessation programs.

In 2009, the Legislature diverted all this money to the general fund. In 2011, the state completely drained its Tobacco Prevention and Control Account. It’s a disgrace that the state no longer funds any anti-tobacco media campaigns or prevention programs in public schools or through community organizations.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that the state spend $67.3 million per year in order to have a comprehensive tobacco prevention program. Such a program would include monitoring illegal sales by retailers.

The state Department of Health reports an alarmingly high rate of tobacco sales violations – 14.8 percent statewide. Thurston County is one of the worst offenders with a shamefully high rate of 26.7 percent.

Anti-tobacco advocates say the nicotine addiction rate for teens is higher than for cocaine or alcohol. It’s time for the state to seriously address this public health issue.

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