- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 13, 2016

The D.C. Council this week gave preliminary approval to legislation that would raise the smoking age to 21, but some lawmakers say making cigarettes illegal won’t deter teens from picking up the habit.

Council member Kenyan McDuffie, Ward 5 Democrat, has advocated raising the minimum smoking age since 2013, saying that reducing youth exposure to cigarettes will go a long way to phasing tobacco use out of the culture.

Currently, one must be 18 years old to purchase cigarettes and other tobacco products in the District.

“Raising the minimum age to purchase tobacco products will significantly reduce our youth’s exposure to a deadly habit,” Mr. McDuffie said when the bill was introduced in April. “The legislation is our best tool to prevent adolescents from smoking, both presently and in the future as adults.”

He cited a March 2015 report from the National Academy of Medicine that said raising the smoking age would lead to nearly 250,000 fewer premature deaths due to lung cancer for people born between 2000 and 2019.

The report also said about 90 percent of people who have ever smoked daily started before the age of 19. If the smoking age were raised to 21, a 12 percent decrease in smoking would occur by 2100, it said.

Council member Yvette Alexander, who chairs the council’s Health and Human Services Committee, said the measure would deter teens from getting cigarettes from their older friends.

“Studies have shown that smoking initiation is rare after the formative teenage years,” said Ms. Alexander, Ward 7 Democrat. “Nationally, almost 10 percent of high school students admit to smoking tobacco in the past 30 days, with most of those students obtaining tobacco products from friends of legal age.”

Currently, the only states to have raised the smoking age, which is 18 in most of the country, are California and Hawaii. Boston, New York City and Chicago also have raised the smoking age.

Not everyone is convinced that punishing smokers under 21 years old is the best way stop smoking.

“Our approach seems to be, ‘We’ll just make it illegal, and that’s how we’ll fix the problem,’” said council Chairman Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat. “And that’s wrong.”

Council member David Grosso said punishing teens for smoking rather than focusing on other efforts to combat the habit create a cycle of problems for them.

“There’s a direct correlation between someone being suspended from school at a very young age, and them ending up caught up in the criminal justice system,” said Mr. Grosso, at-large independent. “It’s not just one issue. It’s a cumulative effect that puts this burden on our youth, and we’re adding to that.”

Other council members raised objections to measure, saying that the city keeps changing the definition of adulthood between 18 and 21 years of age.

There are other sticking points. The District’s independent financial auditor issued a memo saying it would cost the city about $1.3 million in tax revenue next year and about $5 million over the next four years if the District bans 18- to 20-year-olds from purchasing cigarettes.

That means the law would not be able to take effect until the mayor and the council find a way to replace that projected revenue loss in the city’s budget.

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