Physicians say the measure will significantly curtail the use of tobacco products in people ages 18-20, and help reduce the likelihood that young people become lifelong smokers. Ronald DePinho, MD, president of The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, promoted Tobacco 21 to legislative staff and fellow health leaders last week at the Texas Medical Association during the the “University of Health” briefing sponsored by the Texas Public Health Coalition, a group of 35 health-promoting organizations.
Curtailing tobacco use is “the single most important opportunity” to reduce cancer deaths in Texas, said Dr. DePinho. “It trumps everything else combined. We are going to lose a billion lives [worldwide] over the next 100 years [to tobacco-related illnesses]. It’s the only product that when used as intended extracts a very significant social, economic, and personal toll.”
Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States. In Texas alone, about 24,500 adults per year die of tobacco-related causes, and taxpayers lose an estimated $12.2 billion annually due to excess medical care expenditures and lost productivity. Ninety-five percent of smokers in the United States begin smoking before they turn 21, and 80 percent begin before age 18. As many as 500,000 premature deaths could be prevented by year 2100 by raising the minimum age for buying tobacco to 21 nationally. Hawaii, California, and more than 200 localities including New York City and Chicago already have banned the sale of tobacco products to those under 21.
Several bills have been filed by both Democrats and Republicans in the Texas Legislature to raise the minimum smoking age to 21, and the T-21 bills are expected to be filed next week. Physicians are hopeful this is the year the legislation passes.
“This is an enormous opportunity, and there is overwhelming support for this across the political spectrum from the very conservative to extremely progressive,” Dr. DePinho said. “I cannot think of a single thing that would be more impactful for our generation to give to future generations to come.”
The Tobacco 21 initiative is supported by MD Anderson’s Cancer Moon Shots Program, which aims to “rapidly and dramatically reduce mortality and suffering in several major cancers.”