Despite low youth smoking rates, Del. wants to raise legal age for cigarettes

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Even though the number of Delaware teens who smoke is the lowest since the early ‘90s, state lawmakers are pushing a measure to raise the age to buy cigarettes from 18 to 21. (Bigstock)

Even though the number of Delaware teens who smoke is the lowest since the early ‘90s, state lawmakers are pushing a measure to raise the age to buy cigarettes from 18 to 21. (Bigstock)

Preventing kids from starting to smoke will improve health outcomes and reduce health care costs in the years to come. That’s the argument from supporters of Delaware Gov. John Carney’s plan to raise the legal age to purchase cigarettes from 18 to 21.

Carney, who first mentioned the initiative in his State of the State Address in January, rallied Tuesday with supporters of the plan as lawmakers resumed their legislative session in Dover.

“We know that forming good health habits early in life increases the chances you’ll be a healthy adult. That’s why I intend to support Sen. Townsend’s proposal to raise the age for purchasing cigarettes from 18 to 21,” Carney said.

The American Cancer Society praised the effort, noting that smoking kills 1,400 adults every year in Delaware.

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“We encourage the governor and the legislature to act on legislation to protect the lives of Delaware’s young people,” said ACS lobbyist Jeanne Chiquoine.

Meanwhile, Delaware has seen a dramatic decrease in cigarette use by young people.

Every year, Delaware students in fifth, eighth and 11th grades are surveyed about their use of marijuana, alcohol, and tobacco. Over the last two decades, the number of students who admitted smoking in the past 30 days has fallen significantly.

Only 1 percent of eighth-graders and 3 percent of 11th graders said they’ve used cigarettes in the past month. In 2000, 16 percent of eighth-graders and 26 percent of 11th-graders were using cigarettes.

In 1995, the usage rates were even higher, with 25 percent of eighth-graders and 28 percent of 11th-graders using cigarettes in the past month.

Some Republicans, including House Minority Leader Danny Short, bristled at Carney’s initial proposal.

“The issue for me is, I have a lot of friends in the military, 18 is the [age] for going in there,” Short said. “I do understand the healthy side of that issue … I think there’s other things we can do to restrict the age.”

Supporters of raising the age in spite of falling rates for young people pointed to the rise of tobacco alternatives including e-cigarettes and electronic smoking devices such as Juul.

“The dramatic increases of youth e-cigarette use over the last year has reversed the past successes of lowering overall tobacco use among youth,” said Deb Brown of the American Lung Association. “This disturbing trend must not continue.”

E-cigarette manufacturer Juul is also in support of raising the age to purchase tobacco-related products to 21. “We strongly support raising the minimum purchase age for all tobacco products, including vapor products like Juul, to 21 in Delaware,” said Juul spokesman Ted Kwong. “We cannot fulfill our mission to provide the world’s one billion adult smokers with a true alternative to combustible cigarettes if youth use continues unabated.”

Delaware was a leader in combating secondhand smoke in restaurants, bars, casinos and other businesses. Carney was lieutenant governor under then-Gov. Ruth Ann Minner in 2002 when the Clean Indoor Air Act made Delaware one of the first states to prohibit smoking in all enclosed workspaces in the state.

The smoking ban was a dramatic improvement, Carney said, and this measure is a continuation of that effort.

“We have to do more to address this scourge, and this legislation … will go a long way toward doing that,” Carney said.

Like the youth smoking rate, smoking among adults also has declined. Right now, 17 percent of adults in Delaware smoke. That’s down from 30 percent in 1982, Carney said.

“That’s still too many people, too many deaths, too much spending,” Carney said. “So raising the age to buy cigarettes and other tobacco products can help us reduce that percentage further.”

The bill, which was introduced last week, is expected to be discussed Wednesday afternoon in the Senate Health and Social Services Committee.

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