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Time to raise Oregon’s tobacco sales age to protect kids, save lives

Each year, 1,800 Oregon kids become new daily smokers. That’s five kids a day who start a lifetime of deadly addiction that increases their risk for cancer, heart disease and early death. Unless current smoking rates decline, 68,000 Oregon kids alive today will die prematurely from tobacco-related illnesses.

Oregon lawmakers can help reverse this dire statistic by passing Senate Bill 754 to raise the state’s legal sales age for all tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes, to 21. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, passed out of the Senate in March and now awaits a vote in the House of Representatives.

In March, Lane County became Oregon’s first county to raise the tobacco sales age to 21. The Tobacco 21 For Oregon coalition, led by the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, American Heart Association and Oregon Health & Science University, urges the state Legislature to follow suit and make Oregon the third state in the nation, following California and Hawaii, to pass this policy.

Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable death, claiming the lives of 5,500 Oregonians yearly. Nearly 28 percent of all cancer deaths in Oregon are attributed to tobacco. Tobacco use isn’t just physically devastating, it’s also financially destructive. In fact, it costs Oregon more than $3 billion annually in health care costs and lost work productivity, with each household paying $788 in taxes to cover these tobacco-related expenditures.

A higher tobacco sales age will help offset Big Tobacco’s relentless marketing. The tobacco industry preys on young adults ages 18 to 21 because they know it’s a critical period for nicotine addiction to take hold. In fact, it’s the age range when most people transition from experimental tobacco use to regular daily use.

Most adult smokers — 95 percent — begin this addiction before age 21, so raising the sales age will help keep tobacco out of high schools, where younger teens often turn to their social circles of older classmates and friends for tobacco products. The 2015 Oregon Healthy Teens Survey reveals that nearly 24 percent of Oregon’s 11th graders currently use tobacco products.

Evidence also suggests that adolescents are particularly vulnerable to nicotine’s addictive qualities with parts of the brain most responsible for impulse control, decision making and susceptibility to peer pressure still developing. The U.S. Surgeon General reports youth can become dependent on nicotine very quickly and at lower consumption levels than adults.

Protecting kids from using tobacco is popular with the public, including smokers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, three-quarters of Americans — including seven in 10 current smokers — support the policy.

Raising the tobacco sales age promises to save lives, curb tobacco use and reduce tobacco-related disease and health care costs. It’s time for Oregon to pass this common-sense legislation.

Brian Druker, M.D., is director at the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute; Christina Bodamer is Oregon government relations director with the American Heart Association; Christopher Friend is Oregon government relations director with the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.

This viewpoint was first published May 1 in the Statesman Journal.


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