AHA backs federal efforts to raise tobacco sale age to 21

The American Heart Association, alongside the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, American Lung Association, American Academy of Pediatrics and Tobacco-Free Kids, is throwing its support behind federal efforts to raise the tobacco sale age to 21 nationwide.

The Tobacco to 21 Act, introduced as bipartisan legislation in Congress May 1, reflects a years-long attempt to quell smoking rates among teens and pre-teens in the U.S. To date, 12 states and more than 450 localities—including major cities like Chicago, San Antonio, Boston, New York City and Washington, D.C.—have raised the minimum legal sale age for tobacco products to 21.

“Raising the tobacco age of sale to 21 is an important component of a comprehensive strategy to reverse the youth e-cigarette epidemic and continue reducing tobacco use in the United States,” the AHA said in its joint statement. “We urge Congress to pass this strong legislation and to reject tobacco industry efforts to add special interest provisions that block other policies needed to protect kids and public health, such as prohibitions on flavored tobacco products.

“The industry has sought to include such provisions in state and federal Tobacco 21 legislation, as recently reported by the New York Times, Politico, The Hill and other media.”

Cigarette and e-cigarette use has been a major target of reform for the AHA, which has publicly slammed companies like Juul for marketing flavored tobacco products to children. In its latest statement the association said Tobacco 21 laws shouldn’t be a substitute for other measures to reduce tobacco use, like banning the sale of flavored tobacco to minors, but rather complement them. Right now tobacco companies are spending around $9.4 billion a year, or $1 million every hour, to market their products.

A 2015 report from the National Academy of Medicine found that increasing the tobacco age of sale to 21 would, over time, “significantly” reduce the number of kids and young adults who start smoking, as well as smoking-related deaths. The AHA reports some 95% of current cigarette smokers picked up the habit before their 21st birthday.

Hawaii was the first state to enact a Tobacco 21 law, putting the legislation to work in January 2016. California, New Jersey, Oregon, Maine and Massachusetts followed suit, and Arkansas’ law just went into effect on May 1. Illinois, Virginia and Delaware’s laws will go into effect in July, and Washington and Utah have legislation in place that will take effect in 2020 and 2021, respectively.

According to the AHA, bills are also awaiting governors’ signatures in Maryland and New York.

“The need for bold action to further reduce tobacco use in the United States is clear,” the group wrote. “While we have made enormous progress, tobacco use remains the leading preventable cause of death in our country, killing more than 480,000 people each year and costing about $170 billion in healthcare expenses.”