A young girl smokes a cigarette. Photo by Flickr user Valentin Ottone.
A young girl smokes a cigarette. Credit: Valentin Ottone / Creative Commons

In almost all states, 18 is often seen as the true legal age of adulthood, but it’s a deep grey area – 18-year-olds can vote, but they can’t buy alcohol. They can go to war, but can’t rent a car. And cigarettes? Go for it, Sport.

New Jersey is one of five states requiring a minimum age of 19 for tobacco sales, and it would be the first state to increase the age to 21 if a bill headed to the state Senate becomes law.

In addition to the Garden State, Alabama, Alaska, Utah and the District of Columbia all require buyers to be 19, and similar measures are popping up around the country. Last fall, New York City raised the legal age for smoking to 21, and municipalities such as Englewood, N.J., Healdsburg, Calif., and towns in states including Hawaii and Massachusetts are adopting similar measures.

These movements are causing a stir that many people hope will ripple down to the Lone Star state. Lawmakers from San Antonio are currently leading the effort and are receiving support from war veterans, among other constituents.

Senator Carlos Uresti
Senator Carlos Uresti

State Sen. Carlos Uresti (D-San Antonio), a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, has introduced two bills into the State Legislature related to the distribution, purchase, possession, consumption, and receipt of tobacco products. Senate Bill 268, introduced in 2009, would have set the age at 19. Senate Bill 313, introduced last year, would have raised it to 21. While both bills were left in committee, he plans to introduce a similar bill in the new session next January.

“Some may view the negative fiscal note of $42.6 million attached to the bill last session as a deterrent, but I see it as motivation,” Uresti said. “The fact that we rely on this age group to continue smoking in order to balance our budget is not right, and I think we need to address the issue in the upcoming session.”

SB 313 was estimated to have a two-year net impact to Texas general revenue-related funds of $39 .5 million through Aug. 31, 2015, and a direct impact of $42.6 million in revenue loss to the Property Tax Relief Fund for 2014-15, according to the Legislative Budget Board. Any loss to the Property Tax Relief Fund would have been made up with General Revenue of the same amount.

Michael Ruggieri, the senator’s legislative director, said the original bill was meant to raise the age to 19 to get kids through high school without smoking – legally at least.

“The senator’s thought was that if we can get kids out of high school without having started smoking, they’re less likely to start in the first place,” Ruggieri said. “He introduced the second bill pushing the age to 21 thinking that if a kid makes it to 21 without starting smoking, there’s a high likelihood he or she is not going to start–it puts them all the way into college and destroys the chance they’ll start.”

The bill was co-authored by Sen. Juan Hinojosa (D-Corpus Christi-McAllen), a Vietnam veteran, and was supported by the Texas Coalition of Veterans Organizations, a group of 37 Veterans Service Organizations from across the state, Ruggieri noted.

He said Uresti also introduced the legislation because he disapproved of the reasoning many people use to justify the smoking age.

“(The Senator) didn’t like that people always use the idea that they can go off to war when they’re 18, so they should be allowed to smoke at that age, too,” he said. “He found from talking to veterans that a lot of them started smoking when they were in the service and regret it now.”

A smoking soldier. Photo by Flickr user Jayel Aheram. https://www.flickr.com/photos/aheram/1044759653/in/photolist-2AjEDt-fycwoN-ezVTmN-4avezP-gCx98-6MsbWQ-pPjgY-4U48mS-5HJdyV-4nbpxe-o9bVDx-948wrL-o3Uwcq-8tiBjM-8UVZsN-mh363k-dV4fPY-9JUAhM-bBUgK2-5AdQYx-4KbddE-ffZHWc-4ntqiQ-8R8Mf8-p38aTW-7PywnG-erjP3f-9pGWse-eRLxH1-gmTtu-fsA5BG-hPbkP-jeDZW9-ayaDgU-dseyCX-ih874o-ih7JBK-7bfATD-agXYKs-4dzSTz-4PM6Y4-4aveyn-9T4dXy-zmmjC-zmmHz-jAs3Vo-dMswAE-4xSCJ1-CsE2X-9DhTnF
A smoking soldier. Photo by Flickr user Jayel Aheram.

Though legislative action will not occur until the legislature meets again in January, Ruggieri agreed the bill is important to draw attention to the issue.

He said that with kids not smoking as much, the health savings can’t be quantified for the next 10 to 20 years, though they are undeniable.

“We don’t think it’s right the state relies on tax revenue from this, but the people who craft the budget rely on it, and the Senator wants to look at chances for passage,” he said. “Every year he’s proposed this, it’s gotten more favorable amongst the members. A large part of it relies on the tax dollars.”

Each year, about 25,800 Texans under the age of 18 become new smokers, according to the Texas State Comptroller’s Office. According to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, whose president applauded the passage of an ordinance prohibiting smoking in workplaces, restaurants and bars in San Antonio August of 2010, more than half a million Texas minors alive today are at risk of death from smoking, the Campaign reported.

According to the Texas Department of State Health Services’ Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, 17.6% of youth aged 18-29 are current smokers, down from 23.6% in 2010, 23.5% in 2011, and 20.2% in 2012. The data provided is based on slightly different sample sizes for youth aged 18-29 who are current smokers.

The percentage of high school students who smoked cigarettes in the past month has declined since 2005, with 15% of all Texas students lighting up in 2013, DSHS data also showed.

“There are many factors leading to the decrease in prevalence of teen smoking over the last several years, and these include changing social norms, increased knowledge of and understanding of the health effects of smoking, targeted public health campaigns, higher cost for tobacco products, and smoking bans at worksites and public places,” said Christine Mann, press officer with DSHS.

It’s clear that sculpting laws to prevent kids from starting smoking at a young age makes an impact on whether they become cigarette smokers later, but what’s being done in Texas cities and localities to initiate similar rules for prevention early on?

Texas law makes it illegal to sell tobacco products to people under 18 years of age, and anyone who looks 27 years old or younger must present a valid identification before buying tobacco products. Warning signs must be posted at each tobacco retailer location. Texas driver’s licenses are issued with information printed vertically for youth 18 years of age and under and horizontally for those 18 and older to make it easier for the cashier to identify underage customers.

While 18-year-olds are free to buy cigarettes, cities are cracking down on public smoking. In June, the University of Texas at San Antonio became a tobacco-free campus after restricting smoking on pockets of the campus a year earlier.

Students between classes at UTSA.
Students are smoke free between classes at UTSA’s main and downtown campuses. Courtesy photo.

The School’s Student Health Services’ Tobacco Cessation Program aims to help kids become “tobacco-free Roadrunners.”

Austin and Lubbock implemented citywide smoking bans and laws establishing cigarette-free college campuses, as well.

There is currently no statewide smoking ban in Texas, though communities have passed local ordinances restricting smoking at municipal worksites, private sector worksites, restaurants, and bars in and out of restaurants.

Some academics point to sleek, seductive advertising campaigns as culprits in convincing youth to smoke, not only in high school, but in college.

Texas is the No. 1 state in tobacco industry marketing, pulling in almost $600 million, noted Cheryl Perry, a professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center.

“This is in stark contrast to funds spent on tobacco control, where we are nearly dead last,” she said. “That is why we are doing our regulatory science research in Texas, the controversial red state down by the Mexican border.”

The University is home to the Tobacco Center of Regulatory Science on Youth and Young Adults, a program encompassing sites at the University of Texas School of Public Health Austin Regional Campus, UT Austin and the UT MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, each of which hosts one of three funded research programs designed to eliminate the use of nicotine and tobacco products by young people to maximize health.

Scientists at the research centers have three goals: To study tobacco use trajectories and transitions over the course of adolescence and young adulthood, particularly related to non-cigarette tobacco products, to determine the impact of tobacco industry marketing on young people, and to collect data using large representative cohort studies in Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio, one with adolescents in middle and high school and one with students in college, linking behavior and marketing over time.

The University is also developing a library of text messages to be used to educate young adults about the harms associated with conventional, new, and emerging tobacco products.

They will target diverse youth using randomized designs and 30-day messaging campaigns to assess their awareness, receptivity and understanding of the messages.

The researchers will use data to help guide the Food and Drug Administration’s future regulatory efforts around marketing and communications.

*Featured/top image: A young girl smokes a cigarette. Photo by Flickr user Valentin Ottone.

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Katherine Nickas

Katherine Nickas was born in San Antonio near Fort Sam Houston but grew up in southern Indiana. In 2007, she began working for Indiana AgriNews where she covered topics ranging from corn and soybean production...