At first glance, it might seem surprising that the Indiana Chamber of Commerce has made raising the legal smoking age from 18 to 21 one of its nine priorities for the upcoming legislative session.
After all, how much difference could the three-year change make in the business community’s quest to lower the state’s alarmingly high smoking rate?
Actually, quite a bit, according to health care research, given that young people have a propensity to start smoking in their late teens but are highly unlikely to start once they reach 21. Only 10 percent of smokers start at 21 or older, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A 2015 National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine report, commissioned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, found that raising the nationwide legal age to buy tobacco to 21 would prevent 223,000 premature deaths, 50,000 deaths from lung cancer, and 4.2 million lost life years for Americans born between 2010 and 2019.
While we typically look askance at legislation that restricts individuals’ rights to make their own choices, smoking in Indiana is such a pressing health problem it warrants strong action. The statistics are startling: Indiana’s smoking rate is 21.1 percent, ranking us 41st in the nation, according to the UnitedHealth Foundation. In addition to being far higher than the U.S. average of 17.1 percent, Indiana’s rate is more than 5 percentage points higher than that of 18 states.
Young people who decide to smoke today are potentially setting themselves up for chronic conditions that affect their quality of life and add to the state’s bulging health care costs. The chamber says smoking causes $3.1 billion in productivity losses and more than $3 billion in annual health care costs.
The chamber is part of a coalition of business and health care interests called the Alliance for a Healthier Indiana that is picking itself up off the mat after a disappointing 2017 session that saw the Indiana Senate pull the plug on a proposal that would have increased cigarette taxes $1.50 per pack, raised the legal smoking age, and repealed the “smoker’s bill of rights,” which prevents employers from screening potential hires for tobacco use.
The coalition has the same legislative agenda this session, though the age increase and the tax increase might be tougher sells during this short session, given that the former would trim tax revenue and the latter would boost it (the current tax is 99.5 cents per pack). Lawmakers often reserve fiscal matters for the long, budget-writing session.
We encourage lawmakers to at least plow ahead with raising the legal age to 21. Indiana would be joining a trio of states that that took the plunge this summer—New Jersey, Maine and Oregon—bringing the total to five. More than 200 localities have done the same in recent years.
By itself, the age increase won’t solve the problems that regularly land Indiana on lists of unhealthiest states. But it will chip away at them. The stakes are too high to wait until 2019.•
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