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National Editorial & Columnists

EDITORIAL: Raise the tobacco-buying age to 21

Public supports healthier lungs and cleaner air

Few 20-somethings or older adults take up cigarette smoking. They understand that the health risks are inevitable and often lethal. Put another way: If people don’t get hooked on cigarettes at a young age, they generally don’t start to smoke.

How to steer young people away from an addiction that will wreck their health? One way is for Illinois lawmakers to raise to 21 from 18 the legal age to buy tobacco products. That would limit access to cigarettes, and not only for 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds.

That’s because younger adolescents who smoke need someone to buy, or give them, cigarettes. They’re more likely to know an 18-year-old who will do that – often a fellow high school student – than they are to have a 21-year-old running illicit errands for them.

Chicago hiked the tobacco-buying age in July 2016. Early indications suggest a powerful effect. The percentage of Chicagoans 18 to 20 who reported using cigarettes or e-cigarettes fell from 15.2 percent in 2015 to 9.7 percent in 2016, City Hall reports. Dr. Julie Morita, head of the Chicago Department of Public Health, credits much of that drop to the law change. “We were surprised” at the steep decline, she told us.

Now there’s a push by state Rep. Camille Lilly, D-Chicago, and state Sen. Julie Morrison, D-Deerfield, to raise the state tobacco-buying age to 21. Count us in.

We don’t recommend this change lightly. This page long has opposed Nanny State decrees about what adults may eat, or drink, or (legally) smoke. We’ve spilled thousands of gallons of ink inviting the government to butt out of those personal choices. We don’t want a city where people can’t have a mega-huge-gulp soda if they want one. Better information (posted calorie counts, for instance) and more education should suffice to help people make healthier choices on their own.

Those who oppose this change point out, rightly, that age 18 brings many adult obligations and privileges. So why not the ability to buy smokes?

Here’s why we say no. The legal age for buying alcohol is still 21 in the U.S. for the same reason that the tobacco age should be: protecting the health of young people and helping them avoid terrible decisions that they and their families will regret for decades to come.

We used similar reasoning to support the statewide ban on smoking in public places a decade ago. Restaurateurs and retailers grumbled about losing customers, as retailers near the state line do when proposals to raise the tobacco age surface. But for us, the overwhelming potential public health benefit tipped the scales.

Think back to 2008. That’s when Illinois followed Chicago and imposed a ban on indoor public smoking. Opponents hyperventilated over the possible impact on restaurants and other businesses. But have you heard anyone reminisce about smoke-choked restaurants, offices, bars? Neither have we. Which employees yearn for the days when they choked on secondhand smoke in their jobs? Many smokers admit that even they prefer smoke-free venues.

Three out of 4 American adults – including 7 in 10 cigarette smokers – favor hiking the minimum age to 21, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. California, New Jersey, Oregon, Hawaii and Maine already have hiked the tobacco-buying age. Nearly 300 cities have, too.

That’s not the Nanny State forcing an unpopular change on people. That’s lawmakers responding to what citizens want.

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