Let’s Raise the Legal Age to Smoke to 21

I just arrived in Austin, Texas, which is the state capitol of Texas. Shortly, other delegates from all across the state and I will learn how we are going to approach asking our state lawmakers to (1) continue funding a cancer research and prevention program and (2) raise the legal age for buying cigarettes to 21.

Interestingly, far more lawmakers have already signed onto the bill that will pour billions of dollars into cancer research over the next 10 years than have agreed to support raising the legal age for smoking. A couple of years ago when I was here to ask for the same change in the law, my Congressperson argued that she could not tell a person who could legally join the military that they can’t smoke.

Isn’t that weird? They can’t legally rent a hotel room or lease a car at age 18. And, they can’t buy alcohol until they are 21. Is smoking less dangerous to a person’s health than drinking alcohol?

I always kind of wondered what difference it really makes whether a kid can legally buy a package of cigarettes at age 18 or when they turn 21. For the most part, teens that are going to smoke start long before they turn 18. I smoked my first cigarette at age 16. So did most of my friends, if they hadn’t started even earlier.

It didn’t occur to me that many 18-year-olds are still in high school. As a 16 or 17-year-old who wants to smoke and needs cigarettes, it would be easy enough to just ask one of the high school seniors to buy cigarettes. Most kids are going to help out a friend, even if they themselves do not smoke, especially if it means they might make a dollar for doing it.

Once I understood that rationale, it made it much easier to make the ask to raise the legal age to 21. It has been well established that most people who start smoking do so before they are 21 years of age. In fact, 95% of smokers start before they are 21.

Wow. Sit and contemplate that for a moment.

Naturally, we’re never going to keep cigarettes out of the hands of all kids under the age of 18 or 21. But, if it is especially difficult for them to get cigarettes, maybe a few will decide it just isn’t worth the hassle.

(I don’t know about you, but I wonder how anyone, but especially kids, can even afford to smoke these days. When I started smoking, a pack of 20 cigarettes cost $0.35. By the time I quit, they were closer to $3 a pack, I think, especially if you bought them by the single pack. These days, in Texas where they are less expensive than in many states, the average price for one pack of cigarettes is $6.70. I just shake my head at that. I used to smoke at least one and a half packs a day. I sure am glad I quit when I did. I would go broke buying cigarettes in today’s world.)

But I digress. The law we’re proposing isn’t about raising the cost of cigarettes. It is about changing how easy they are to get. I can’t be sure of it, but I think I might have been one of those kids who just didn’t want to go through all the trouble it would take to ask someone else to buy my cigarettes. I think that would have been especially true if I had to find someone who was not even a classmate to do it for me.

If the law prevented anyone under the age of 21 from legally buying cigarettes back when I was a kid, I might never have started smoking. And, that would have been the biggest favor legislators and the adult public could have ever done for me. I might not have realized it when I was a rebellious teen, but I sure understand it now.

If you live in a state where it is still legal to buy cigarettes at the young age of 18, please advocate for them to raise the age to 21. There is no good reason to allow 18-year-old teens to legally purchase cigarettes. If you live in Texas, please write to your legislators and ask them to support Tobacco 21 legislation.