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Texas lawmaker wants to raise tobacco age, dent vaping in the process

By   /   February 1, 2017  /   News  /   No Comments

A San Antonio Democrat wants Texas to become the third state, along with California and Hawaii, to raise the legal age to buy tobacco to 21, with the idea of reducing teen smoking. But the proposal also targets e-cigarettes and vaping devices that have been effective in reducing tobacco use.

AP Photo/Eric Gay

ANTI-VAPE: State Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, wants to raise the legal age to purchase tobacco products in Texas to 21, a proposal that would also apply to vaping products.

“Our taxpayers bear a large financial burden as a result of smoking related illness,” San Antonio Democratic Sen. Carlos Uresti told Watchdog when asked about his proposal. “A small increase in the smoking age is estimated to save Texas taxpayers over $400 million within the first five years, and more than $5.59 billion over 25 years. As a Marine, I share concerns with the Department of Defense, who now categorizes tobacco use amongst enlisted members as a serious health problem costing the department $1.6 billion per year.”

His office also suggested adding e-cigarettes to the bill would have a greater impact on teens ages 15 to 17 because it would reduce peer pressure, and keep an estimated 25 percent from getting access to vaping devices.

Austin Democrat Donna Howard has filed a companion bill in the Texas House. She declined to comment for this story.

Uresti’s bill has been assigned to the Senate Health and Human Services committee where he is vice chair.  Howard’s bill has not been assigned to a committee.

Richmond Republican Rep. John Zerwas, an anesthesiologist, is promising to champion the legislation, citing public health as his major justification.

“There’s obviously some people who are going to see this as an infringement on rights and stuff, and those voices need to be heard,” Zerwas told The Dallas Morning News. “And yeah, that’s a loss of potential revenue, but one we can probably make up somewhere else. What’s more important than the health of our youth and future generations?”

The Texas Medical Association appears to be on board with the proposal. The group had T21, or Tobacco 21, listed in the Public Health Section of its TMA Political Primer for the legislative session. The American Heart Association is also a fan of raising the tobacco age to 21, and endorsed federal legislation on the issue in 2015.

The Texas Department of State Health Services released a report in December 2016 suggesting Texas could prevent about 1,300 pre-term births attributed to smoking and about 3,700 low-weight cases in babies if the smoking age were raised to 21. DSHS also guessed the state could save about $406 million in caring for these cases, compared to losing $97 million in tobacco taxes.

‘Another tool for stopping smoking’

But DSHS also noted tobacco usage for all Texans was around 15.9 percent in 2013, down from 18.2 percent in 2012 — in other words, the trend is down even without further restrictions.

“Without raising the tobacco age, we’ve seen huge reductions in youth smoking,” argued Guy Bentley, a consumer freedom associate at the libertarian Reason Foundation. “One of the reasons for this is we have huge amounts of knowledge about the harms of smoking. … Young people are especially getting a lot of information about the risks of smoking, as a consequence, fewer of them are starting smoking.”

A recent British study also suggested people were using e-cigarettes and vaping devices to kick the smoking habit.

“There is no evidence that e-cigarettes are undermining England’s falling smoking rates,” researcher Ann McNeil told Reuters in 2015 after writing a study on e-cigarette usage for Britain’s Department of Health. “Instead, the evidence consistently finds that e-cigarettes are another tool for stopping smoking and in my view smokers should try vaping, and vapers should stop smoking entirely.”

The study also found almost all Britons using vaping devices were either former smokers or smokers hoping to quit cigarettes entirely.

“Raising the vaping age to 21 would have a series of negative consequences,” Bentley said. “This will limit [a teen’s] choices and abilities to switch from combustible tobacco cigarettes to vapor and e-cigarette products which are far and away safer than combustible tobacco products.”

Former smokers are speaking out against the bills.

Felicia Cravens is another former smoker who started in her late teens because she had parents who smoked. “My older sister quit with vaping, and encouraged me to try it,” she said.

AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

TASTY: Some research suggests many teens use vaping products simply for flavor and not as a nicotine delivery device.

But family pressure wasn’t the only reason why the Houstonian switched to vaping. It was also the cost.

“I smoked pretty expensive cigarettes — probably $4-5k a year. My QuitNow! app says I’ve saved $8,200 since I quit based on my old habits, and vaping cost me around $900 in that time.”

There’s also research that suggests teens aren’t vaping for the nicotine. A 2016 study by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research reported there were plenty of teens who vaped just for the flavoring.

Bentley said that is an important distinction, because it can help keep in check scare stories about e-cigarettes.

“They’re not even getting addicted to these things,” he said.

‘The cat is out of the bag’

So why do government entities want to prohibit e-cigarettes? The short answer appears to be fear.

“The FDA generally isn’t held responsible for the suffering and deaths that result from a medicine, product, or service that wasn’t available due to its slow and prohibitively expensive approval process. It is, however, blamed for products that cause harm 20 or 30 years down the line,” Competitive Enterprise Institute consumer policy fellow Michelle Minton wrote earlier this month. “So, they err on the side of caution. The problem with vaping is, the cat is out of the bag.”

Bentley called it government looking for a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist because kids aren’t experimenting with cigarettes anymore. Instead, they’re trying out vaping products, and end up not getting hooked at all. Bentley is still in favor of keeping e-cigarettes out of the hands of people younger than 18, but said the “trends are moving in the right direction.”

“These proposals will say you are responsible enough to fight for your country overseas and risk your life, but you are not responsible enough to choose whether you want to smoke a cigarette or use vapor products,” Bentley said. “That’s a fundamental infringement on the civil liberties of American adults.”