Texas 21, a coalition of 75 public health groups that includes the Texas Medical Association and two powerful state legislators, on Tuesday called for the Texas Legislature to stop the sale of tobacco to anyone under the age of 21.
"It's time for the state to do what it can to protect our youth from a lifetime of nicotine addiction," said John Carlo, MD, chairman of the Texas Public Health Coalition and a member of TMA's Council on Legislation.
Texas 21 urged state lawmakers to support House Bill 749 by Rep. John Zerwas, MD (R-Richmond), and Senate Bill 21 by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston). Both bills would raise the legal age to sell tobacco, including vaping products and e-cigarettes, from 18 to 21. HB 749 goes before the House Public Health Committee on Wednesday.
The Texas Legislature failed to approve a similar measure in 2017, but Senator Huffman, who chairs the Senate State Affairs Committee, said she was confident it could pass this year. The bill has bipartisan support in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and it appears to have the backing of leadership in both bodies as well, she says.
"It's our job now to make sure we get the votes we need to get this done once and for all," she said.
Representative Zerwas, an anesthesiologist who also is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said raising the age for legal tobacco purchases would reduce smoking rates, save lives, and save the state billions of dollars. Every year, smoking costs the state $8.85 billion annually in direct health care costs and $1.96 billion in Medicaid expenses. He said each Texas household pays $747 per year in state and federal taxes tied to smoking-related government expenditures.
Raising the age for tobacco purchases to 21 “is not a panacea when it comes to eliminating smoking," Representative Zerwas said. "But it's a very powerful thing to move tobacco products and these e-cigarettes away from susceptible adolescents who can become very quickly addicted."
Numerous scientific studies have shown that virtually all smokers start before age 21, and seven states and 430 localities — including San Antonio — have raised the legal minimum age for tobacco sales, according to Texas 21.
Kellen Kruk, a high school senior who leads an anti-smoking student group in Lufkin, said he sees how tobacco becomes a hand-me-down addiction among those 18 and younger.
"The freshmen and sophomores look up to the seniors and mirror and copy what they do," he said. "In the case of tobacco, that can be really bad. As an 18-year-old right now, I can go buy [tobacco products] legally, and I can show them off on my social media accounts like Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter, influencing the peers who look up to me."
In Texas, 7.4 percent of high school students smoke and 10.3 percent use e-cigarettes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 488,000 Texas young people ultimately will die prematurely from smoking if present trends continue, Texas 21 reported.
Texas 21 includes medical associations like TMA as well as Texas hospitals, medical schools, medical insurance companies, and public health nonprofits.