Editor’s Note: Brian Schatz is a Democratic senator from Hawaii and Todd Young is a Republican senator from Indiana. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the authors; view more opinion articles on CNN.
It’s a nationwide epidemic that can no longer be ignored: the use of tobacco products, particularly e-cigarettes and vaping devices, among teenagers and young adults.
Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report estimating that approximately 4.9 million middle and high school students were tobacco users last year, up from 3.6 million in 2017.
That’s a 36% bump, and it is largely driven by a surge in electronic cigarette use, which increased by 78% among high school students from 2017 to 2018 and 48% among middle school students over the same period, according to the 2018 National Youth Tobacco Survey.
We share the concerns of parents across America who are rightly frightened by the rising use of tobacco products among children.
This is why we recently introduced a bipartisan bill to raise the legal age of sale for tobacco products from 18 to 21.
After carefully studying this issue and seeking input from health experts, teachers and parents in our states, it is clear that there is bipartisan support for raising the tobacco age. The American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, American Lung Association, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, the American Academy of Pediatrics and more leading healthcare groups have all expressed their support for our bill.
As we worked to craft the Tobacco to 21 Act, we learned that it’s not just parents and other adults who are alarmed. We’ve also heard from students who are worried about this growing trend – and for good reason.
In the 55 years since the Surgeon General’s first report on smoking, more than 21 million people in the United States prematurely died from illnesses related to smoking.
While substantial gains have been made – including a significant decrease in adult cigarette smokers and the restriction of smoking in most public places – tobacco use remains the leading preventable cause of death in the United States, annually causing more than 480,000 deaths due to related illnesses.
One of the best ways to change these statistics is to change the legal tobacco age of sale. Nearly all smokers – an astounding 95% – start before the age 21. And, sadly, if the current rates of smoking continue, the CDC projects 5.6 million of today’s youth will eventually die from preventable, smoking-related illnesses – that’s “about one out of every 13 living Americans ages 17 or younger.”
There is also a strong financial case for passing our bill. Taxpayers continue to foot the bill for smokers’ health care in the form of higher Medicare, Medicaid and other health care costs. According to the CDC, “smoking-related illness in the United States costs more than $300 billion a year.” This includes “nearly $170 billion in direct medical care for adults and more than $156 billion in lost productivity.”
On average, smokers pay 15-20% higher healthcare premiums than non-smokers, and health care costs for smokers in the workplace average 40% higher than non-smokers. According to the Indiana Chamber, smokers also take the equivalent of an additional three weeks of vacation per year in the form of smoke breaks.
Bottom line: Raising the tobacco legal age of sale is smart policy to protect kids, improve public health and reduce health care costs.
We look forward to working with our colleagues on both sides of the aisle in the coming weeks to move our legislation forward, and keep tobacco products out of our children’s hands.