The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 974 people died in West Virginia in 2017 from drug overdoses. But according to the state Department of Health and Human Resources, almost 4,000 West Virginians die every year from a different addiction—tobacco.
West Virginia has the highest smoking rate in the country. The CDC estimates that 26 percent of adults and 14 percent of those under 18 smoke. That’s about twice the national average. As a result, tobacco-related illness is the leading cause of death in the state.
All that smoking is expensive, not just for the cigarettes and smokeless tobacco, but also for the healthcare associated with tobacco use. DHHR estimates the cost at $2 billion annually for healthcare due to tobacco-related illnesses and lost productivity.
Today, a new law takes effect in neighboring Ohio raising the minimum age to buy tobacco and related products from 18 to 21. That makes Ohio the 18th state to do so. Governor Mike DeWine, a Republican, supported the bill.
“We have known for a long, long time that if a young person can get to 21 without smoking, the odds are pretty heavy that they aren’t ever going to smoke,” DeWine said when he signed the bill into law in July.
He’s right. There is a body of research that shows raising the minimum age for tobacco purchases works. A report by the Institute of Medicine determined, “Based on the review of literature… increasing the MLA (minimum age of legal access) for tobacco products will likely prevent or delay initiation of tobacco use by adolescents and young adults.”
One of the drivers of youth smoking is peer influence. The Society for Study of Addiction reported a similar conclusion. “As peer smoking is a critical predictor of youth smoking, this study suggests that tobacco-21 laws may help reduce smoking among those most susceptible to tobacco use,” said lead author Abigale Friedman from the Yale School of Public Health.
West Virginia’s legal tobacco use age is 18, but Senator Tom Takubo is trying to change that. The Kanawha County Republican is a pulmonologist and he sees first hand every day the damage smoking causes.
He pushed a bill during the legislative session earlier this year to raise the legal age to use tobacco to 21. “A yes vote on this bill… it’s going to save lives,” he said during a Senate floor debate. “You have the power to do that right now with a simple push of the button.”
Takubo carried the day and SB 348 passed 20-14. However, the legislation ran into trouble among conservative Republicans in the House. It died in the House Health and Human Resources Committee on a voice vote.
Opponents argued, among other things, that 18-year-olds are adults and can make their own decisions about whether to smoke. However, the state also has an interest here as well, because the responsibility for paying for the healthcare for many who come down with tobacco-related diseases falls to the state’s taxpayers.
West Virginia should follow suit with neighboring states Ohio, Virginia and Maryland, and raise the tobacco use age to 21. That move, along with tobacco prevention and cessation programs, will help lower the smoking and snuff dipping rates and ultimately make West Virginia a healthier state.