The Washington, D.C. Council advanced a bill to raise the legal age of tobacco use in the District from 18 to 21 and limit its public use Oct. 11.
Cities including Boston, Chicago and New York City have implemented similar hikes in the minimum smoking age.
Under the proposed law, the possession of tobacco for those under 21 would be considered a civil offense and purchasing tobacco for those under 21 would be considered a criminal offense. It would also ban all forms of tobacco use from sporting arenas and other public venues in D.C.
The bill, initially introduced by Councilmembers Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5), Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), Vincent Orange (D-At Large) and Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), encountered opposition from Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), David Grosso (I-At Large) and Anita Bonds (D-At Large).
The legislation must clear a second round of votes from the council before landing on Mayor Muriel Bowser’s (D) desk for consideration. Bowser’s office did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
Mendelson challenged the bill on the grounds that it arbitrarily raised the threshold for adulthood.
McDuffie, who has spearheaded passage of the bill since its original introduction in April 2015, said he supported it because of the hidden death toll of tobacco-related illnesses nationwide. According to data released December 2015 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cigarette smoking is responsible for more than 480,000 deaths per year in the United States.
“As an annual percentage, smoking accounts for almost 20 percent of all deaths in the U.S.,” McDuffie wrote in an email to The Hoya. “To give you a sense of how horrific a mortality rate this is, consider this: smoking cigarettes kills more Americans than alcohol, car accidents, suicide, AIDS, homicide and illegal drugs combined.”
According to McDuffie, the $2.50 economic loss in excise taxes collected by the city on each package of cigarettes will be more than offset by the $47.53 average gained by removing medical expenses and productivity losses per package.
McDuffie said he reasoned that by reducing access to cigarettes for people early in life, there will be lower rates of tobacco addiction later in life.
“Reducing the number of people under the age of 21 who become addicted to tobacco products may significantly reduce the morbidity and mortality rates from tobacco use later in life,” McDuffie wrote.
The bill coincides with an upcoming referendum to make Georgetown a smoke-free campus, which was approved by a Georgetown University Student Association senate vote Sunday.
Under current Georgetown policy, smoking is prohibited in residence hall rooms, apartments and townhouses, but otherwise permitted in designated areas outdoors that do not block entrances or transmit smoke into buildings.
Henry Callander (COL ’18), who founded the Smoke Free Georgetown campaign, expressed his support for the bill.
“I think [the bill] will drive students to be healthier altogether, because the main point of this directive is to stop people from starting cigarettes too early in their lives,” Callander said.
Krishna Upadhya, a specialist in adolescent health at Johns Hopkins University who testified on the bill over the summer, echoed this sentiment, affirming that limiting access for youths can decrease susceptibility to health risks in the future.
“One of the things that we know is that you’re much more susceptible to addiction or to substance use problems the earlier you start,” Upadhya said. “Tobacco obviously is a substance with a lot of potential health risks and so I think there’s good evidence that delaying initiation is protective.”
Upadhya emphasized that although the health risks associated with tobacco use are dangerous, the biggest reason for preventing use at a young age is the increased likelihood of developing an addiction.
“If you start smoking today, you’re not going to develop lung cancer tomorrow,” Upadyah said. “So a lot of the health risks that we worry about are things that are going to happen in the future from chronic use and you’re more likely to become a chronic user the earlier you start.”
Callander compared cigarettes and alcohol, noting how much easier it is to obtain the former despite tobacco’s being more dangerous.
“I think they’re aiming to help improve the health and safety of young people everywhere,” Callander said. “Kudos to them for being forward-thinking and caring about people’s lives.”
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