Congress should raise smoking age

This editorial was written by The Washington Post.

Approximately 35 minors become regular smokers every day, with one in three eventually dying as a result, according to the advocacy group Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. After the Food and Drug Administration cracked down on underage tobacco use over the past few years, lawmakers are finally listening.

Last week, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee approved the Tobacco-Free Youth Act, a bipartisan bill co-sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.

If passed, the act would increase the legal age for purchasing tobacco products to 21 from 18 and expand existing federal penalties on retailers who sell to underaged consumers.

Military personnel under 21 are included — an exemption in some of the states that have already raised the legal age.

If enacted, the American Lung Association estimates the measure could prevent 223,000 deaths of people born between 2000 and 2019.

The McConnell-Kaine bill is part of a larger national effort to address youth tobacco use. Two additional bills are also moving to restrict flavored tobacco products, another key driver of the growth of teen vaping. So far, 16 states and the District of Columbia have increased their tobacco-purchasing age to 21.

However, as the difficulties in enforcing underage alcohol consumption have shown, enforcement remains a key concern. A study by medical journal JAMA Pediatrics found that, in an undercover operation, half the tobacco and vape stores in California failed to check for identification when selling nicotine products to young people, even though the state raised the tobacco-purchase age to 21.

Age verifications on tobacco product-selling websites also need to be strengthened.

Increasing the legal age will not change the corporate marketing habits that have targeted young people for decades, and the federal government must remain vigilant against any attempt to weaken tobacco regulation.

The FDA must also clamp down on flavored tobacco — the gateway to usage — in youth markets and ensure a pre-market review of all products. Raising the smoking age must be one part of a comprehensive strategy that also looks at access and marketing to tackle this public-health crisis. Cigarette smoking and secondhand smoke cause more than 480,000 preventable deaths each year — more than opiate overdoses, gun violence and automobile crashes combined.

Congressional action to curb underage tobacco use is long overdue.

Members of The Denver Post’s editorial board are Megan Schrader, editor of the editorial pages; Lee Ann Colacioppo, editor; Justin Mock, CFO; Bill Reynolds, vice president of circulation and production; Bob Kinney, vice president of information technology; and TJ Hutchinson, systems editor.