In what has become somewhat of a Texas tradition, the state legislature is once again considering a proposal to raise the smoking age from 18 to 21. It’s the sixth time a version of the plan has been introduced in recent years. If the law passes, Texas would join just California and Hawaii as states where you have to be 21-years-old to buy tobacco products.
It’s also an especially odd time for Texas to be pushing for a higher smoking age, as researchers recently found youth smoking rates have plummeted to record lows. “Cigarette smoking among teens in grades 12, 10 and 8 continued a decades-long decline in 2016 and reached the lowest levels recorded since annual tracking began 42 years ago,” the University of Michigan’s “Monitoring the Future” study found last year.
Similar success is playing out in Texas. The Texas Youth Risk Behavior Survey reveals that while 28.4 percent of Texas high school students smoked in 2001, the percentage dropped to 14.1 in 2013. And data updated just last month from the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids reveals that smoking among Texas high school students has continued dropping to its current low of 10.6 percent.
In the Texas legislature’s recent Health Committee hearing on the bill, House Bill 1908, proponents cited protecting kids as their primary motive. But it’s not at all clear how younger kids — who can’t legally buy cigarettes now — would be helped by the law. The Surgeon General says that nearly 9 out of 10 smokers have already started smoking by the age of 18. So this bill wouldn’t impact the 90 percent of kids already smoking by 18, it will only impact adults between the ages of 18 and 21.
Those over-18 adults should be free to make their own choices. Texan Stephen Belcher testified against the bill, explaining that his son, who isn’t yet 21, serves in the U.S. Marine Corps and uses smokeless tobacco. Belcher argued that his son “can make his own medical decisions, can run for office, choose to fight for his country and choose to die for me and you, but he can’t choose to use smokeless tobacco?”
Belcher makes important points. At 18, Texans can get married, buy guns, get credit cards, vote, and join the military. If an 18-year-old commits a crime in Texas, they’ll be charged as an adult and could even face the death penalty. Banning an 18-year-old Marine from buying smokeless tobacco doesn’t make sense.
If it is passed, the Legislative Budget Board estimates that only 33 percent of affected adults would actually obey the law. Thus, it’s worth questioning the value of a law that 66 percent — two-thirds — of those affected would be expected to routinely violate. What does that mean for law enforcement? It would be a disaster. Smokers are disproportionately poor and less educated than the overall population. Does Texas want its low-income 19- and 20-year-olds ticketed and fined for trying to buy cigarettes?
As vaping shop owner Courtney Mendoza told state legislators, “It’s my mother’s job to tell me not to smoke, not the state of Texas.”