Raising smoking age to 21 will save young lives

The Schenectady County Legislature can take a significant step to save lives.
Bill Sherman
Bill Sherman

The Schenectady County Legislature can take a significant step to save lives.

The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN) supports a bill now being considered that would raise the age of sale for tobacco products in our county from 18 to 21.

If enacted this would help protect vulnerable young people from trying tobacco products and then becoming addicted for a lifetime.

Last week, the Legislature held a public hearing on Tobacco 21 and the large majority of those testifying strongly supported this common sense measure.

As with many legislative proposals, there were a handful of skeptics. However, the arguments raised simply don’t hold water when considering the health benefits that Tobacco 21 would have to the entire county.

Evidence shows Tobacco 21 could significantly reduce smoking prevalence. That means healthier residents and lower tobacco-related healthcare costs.

Tobacco products are not like any other legal product because when used as intended these products cause disease and premature death.

Effective policies are needed to protect everyone — especially younger people — from developing a lifelong, deadly addiction. Research indicates 18 to 20 years of age is a critical age period for tobacco addiction.

The brain is still developing during this time, including areas responsible for decision-making, impulse control, sensation seeking and susceptibility to peer pressure.

Given 95 percent of smokers started before the age of 21, ACS CAN believes it is imperative to take action to help our young residents. Tobacco 21 is a promising strategy and could stop kids before they begin a deadly tobacco addiction, thereby saving lives and health care costs.

We all pay the price for smoking. In fact, the annual health care costs in New York directly caused by smoking are $10.39 billion. Medicaid costs caused by smoking in New York are a staggering $6.62 billion.

While the financial costs are astounding, the real price we pay from tobacco use is with our health.

Tobacco use is a major risk factor for numerous cancers and takes a terrible toll on our residents.

Approximately 13,200 New York state residents will be told they have lung cancer this year.

Lung cancer is the number one cause of cancer deaths in our state. Sadly, I have been personally touched by this because my father lost his battle with lung cancer at age 58.

Schenectady County’s smoking rates are higher than the state’s average and low-income county residents are targets for the tobacco industry as 34 percent of this population is still smoking.

I am hopeful that our legislators will act to have Schenectady County join Albany, Chautauqua, Cortland and Suffolk counties, as well as New York City, California and Hawaii in taking this step to protect young people by prohibiting the sale of these deadly products to those under the age of 21.

While it would be a step in the right direction if such a law were enacted statewide, the leaders of each county best know their specific populations and how to effectively serve them.

A Schenectady County law would send a strong message that the health and the lives of our residents matter.

Raising the age to 21 is a step to make it less likely that a Schenectady County resident will hear the words, “You have cancer.” On behalf of ACS CAN, I urge the county legislature to act now to save lives and protect the health of our young people by passing this measure.

Bill Sherman is vice president of government relations for the Eastern Division of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.

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