Patricia Garson was a smoker who died of lung cancer. Her husband inhaled second-hand smoke for over 20 years and died of lung cancer too. Their daughter smoked for 30 years and has lung cancer. And their son — a co-author of this column — smoked for three years. One thing uniting those Garsons: Their smoking began in their teenage years.
Unfortunately, this experience is far too familiar for many Americans. Tobacco is the leading cause of illness and death in the United States, claiming the lives of nearly half a million people each year. That is equivalent to three 747 planes crashing in this country every single day. However, we have the opportunity to prevent today’s teenagers from the harms experienced by the Garson family. The question is, are we willing to seize it?
There is an effective solution that can dramatically curb smoking — and one that has broad, bipartisan support. Across the country, several states and hundreds of cities have passed a law that can help ensure teenagers never start smoking — and therefore, never become addicted. These laws, known as “Tobacco 21 laws,” make it illegal to sell cigarettes and other tobacco products to anyone under the age of 21.
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Nationally, 82 percent of Americans support preventing the sale of all tobacco products to those under age 21, according to a 2018 poll conducted by Texas Medical Center Health Policy Institute, to be released Wednesday.
Both Republicans and Democrats back these laws to keep tobacco out of the hands of teenagers. Support for the laws is high across different income and education levels. Support is high even among those under 21, who are most directly affected.
It’s important to enact these laws because teens are especially susceptible to the addictive effects of nicotine. Young people need less nicotine than adults to become addicted, and their impulsivity prevents them from recognizing the serious risks they face if they choose to become smokers. But if you prevent them from smoking when they’re under 21, many will choose not to take up smoking, even when they’re of legal age.