Follow Utah’s lead, raise the national smoking age to 21

Tobacco is costing our nation hundreds of thousands of lives and billions of dollars every year. Our home state of Utah was one of the first states in the nation to figure this out, and our Legislature responded by raising the smoking age to 21. It’s time for the rest of the nation to follow Utah’s lead. Our bill, the Tobacco to 21 Act — which has quickly gained the support of the American Lung Association, the American Cancer Society Action Network and many more organizations — would do exactly that.

The harmful effects of tobacco are undisputed. The use of tobacco products can lead to cancer, cardiovascular or pulmonary diseases, diabetes and a range of other serious health conditions. Worse, the harmful effects of tobacco often touch innocent bystanders. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that last year alone, cigarette smoking was responsible for more than 480,000 deaths in the United States, including more than 41,000 deaths resulting from secondhand smoke exposure. This is about 1 in 5 deaths annually, or 1,300 deaths a day. Tobacco use remains the leading cause of preventable death in the nation.

The impact of tobacco use is much worse for adolescents. We know that nicotine is a powerfully addictive chemical, and studies show that adolescent nicotine use disrupts brain development, negatively affects learning and leads to a higher susceptibility to addiction. According to the Institute of Medicine, “the parts of the brain most responsible for decision-making, impulse control, sensation seeking, and susceptibility to peer pressure continue to develop through young adulthood.”

As a society, we have a collective responsibility to keep these harmful tobacco products out of our children’s hands and protect them from a lifetime of addiction and health risks.

In Utah, the use of electronic cigarettes has nearly doubled in the past five years, and the increase in new tobacco products — including vaping products — has led to an increase in younger nicotine-dependent Utahns. As our country faces a nationwide epidemic, it’s critical we keep tobacco out of high schools, and even middle schools, in this new era of youth use and experimentation. Increasing the minimum legal age of tobacco sales to 21 years old will reduce access to tobacco products for the group most likely to become addicted to these harmful products and create a buffer between schools and tobacco products, particularly electronic cigarettes, that hardly exists now.

According to the Institute of Medicine, raising the minimum age for purchasing tobacco products would result in 223,000 fewer premature deaths, 50,000 fewer deaths from lung cancer and 4.2 million fewer years of life lost for children born between 2000 and 2019. It would also save the U.S. approximately $175 billion in direct medical costs and $156 billion in lost productivity every year. The institute expects that raising the legal age would also reduce tobacco experimentation among youth and lead to a 12 percent decrease in smoking prevalence overall.

Our country and our children deserve better. Washington can learn from Utah’s example by passing the Tobacco to 21 Act and protecting our children from a lifetime of addiction.

Sen. Mitt Romney is Utah’s junior senator. Rep. Chris Stewart represents Utah’s 2nd Congressional District.