Teen smokers get a butt-kicking

20-year-olds, too, as Gov. Pritzker signs law raising smoking age to 21

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel applauded Gov. Pritzker for signing a bill into law bringing the state smoking age in line with the city’s at 21. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel applauded Gov. Pritzker for signing a bill into law bringing the state smoking age in line with the city’s at 21. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

By Ted Cox

As of July 1, Illinoisans will need to be 21 to buy cigarettes.

Gov. Pritzker signed a bill into law Sunday raising the smoking age to 21. Illinois will join Virginia in becoming the eighth and ninth states to set 21 as the minimum age to buy and consume tobacco products, and it will be the first state in the Midwest to do so.

The General Assembly had previously passed the same measure, only to see it vetoed last year by former Gov. Bruce Rauner. Pritzker, in contrast, said he was “proud” to sign the new law Sunday in Chicago.

Calling it “a milestone day for the health of our communities and especially our young people,” Pritzker cited that the move is “supported by the surgeon general, the American Cancer Society, our own Illinois Department of Public Health, our local health departments, by all available research … and by common sense.

“For Illinois,” he added, “it will reduce costs for our state, it will make our schools and communities healthier places to learn and live, and – most importantly – it will save lives.”

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel welcomed the move to bring the state’s smoking age in line with the city’s. “Our children must never be counted as part of tobacco companies’ bottom lines,” he said. “Chicago raised the age to purchase tobacco to 21 and teen smoking dropped to a record low of 6 percent, proving this public-health strategy helps stop addiction and save lives.”

State Senate President John Cullerton of Chicago likewise cheered what he called “an overdue change for the better” after it was previously vetoed by Rauner. “This will make a difference,” he said. “It will save lives. I look forward to continuing this collaborative process with the governor as we move on to tackle other issues and make Illinois better.”

House Bill 345 covers both tobacco and vaping products, including cigarettes, chewing tobacco, e-cigarettes, and vapes. It hikes the current minimum smoking age of 18 to 21.

“Today represents the culmination of years of dedication and hard work from health advocates and lawmakers who were relentless in their fight to protect teen health,” added state Sen. Julie Morrison of Deerfield, a lead sponsor of the bill. “Raising the age has been proven to reduce smoking rates among young teenagers who are susceptible to the impact of nicotine on the brain and have a strong chance of beginning a lifelong deadly habit.”

State Rep. Camille Lilly of Chicago said it was actually about snuffing out smoking among even younger teens. “Often, we only think of the 18-, 19-, and 20-year olds being affected by this law, but actually the target age group is the 14- to 17-year-olds,” she said. “One of the points of this legislation is to remove the 18-year-old supplier from the high schools. This legislation will reduce youth tobacco use in Illinois by at least 25 percent over time. I thank Gov. Pritzker for signing Tobacco 21 today.”

Shana Crews of the American Cancer Society, Kathy Drea of the American Lung Association, Julie Mirostaw of the American Heart Association, and Matt Maloney of the Respiratory Health Association joined the governor at the bill-signing ceremony Sunday at Mile Square Health Clinic in Chicago. They issued a joint statement saying: “For decades, Illinois has made great strides in tobacco control, and this new law is a promising step on our way to eliminating tobacco’s burden on our communities. Fewer kids will have access to tobacco products through older friends and siblings, making them less likely to ever develop an addiction. That means fewer lives lost to tobacco-related cancers and illnesses, and more young people leading full and healthy lives.”

The American Lung Association, for one, made raising the smoking age a key issue, and it called out Illinois in its 17th annual “State of Tobacco Control” report released in February.

The law sets stiff penalties for retailers who sell to underage smokers, as well as to anyone who distributes tobacco products to those underage.

In Washington, D.C., on Monday, Sen. Dick Durbin joined 10 of his Senate colleagues in sending a critical letter to the head of JUUL Labs, maker of a vaping device that’s growing in popularity. JUUL has marketed it as a way for smokers to wean themselves off tobacco, but critics charge that it’s actually serving to hook new young smokers on nicotine, especially with its “pods” in flavors such as mint, mango, fruit, and cucumber, as well as menthol, “classic tobacco,” and “Virginia tobacco.”

The senators were especially concerned by the recent move by tobacco giant Altria, parent company of Philip Morris USA, maker of Marlboro cigarettes, to pay $12.8 billion for a 35 percent ownership stake in JUUL. That “appears to create a clear customer pipeline for the tobacco giant, known for its kid-popular Marlboro brand, to hook a new generation of users onto its cigarettes,” according to a news release put out by Durbin’s office.

The release pointed out that “over the past year, the U.S. Surgeon General and the Food and Drug Administration commissioner have called youth use of e-cigarettes a ‘public health epidemic.’” It cited statistics finding that “20.8 percent of high-school students and 4.9 percent of middle-school students — more than 3.6 million children — currently use e-cigarettes,” including vaping devices, and that “over the past year alone, e-cigarette use among children increased by an alarming 78 percent in high-school students and 48 percent in middle-school students.” It added that he Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had determined that “JUUL is driving this epidemic,” and it also cited how Marlboro has succeeded in becoming the most popular cigarette with teen smokers.

“While JUUL has promised to address youth vaping through its modest voluntary efforts, by accepting $12.8 billion from Altria — a tobacco giant with such a disturbing record of deceptive marketing to hook children onto cigarettes — JUUL has lost what little remaining credibility the company had when it claimed to care about the public health,” the senators wrote in their letter to JUUL Chief Executive Officer Kevin Burns. “While you and your investors may be perfectly content with hooking an entire new generation of children on your tobacco products in order to increase your profit margins, we will not rest until your dangerous products are out of the hands of our nation’s children.”

The letter quoted the American Heart Association in calling the partnership between JUUL and Altria “a match made in tobacco heaven.” It also quoted CDC Director Robert Redfield in saying, “The popularity of JUUL among kids threatens our progress in reducing youth e-cigarette use.”

The senators called their letter the beginning of an investigation into JUUL’s marketing toward children, and it warned Burns to be prepared to defend JUUL’s marketing efforts, especially toward new and young smokers.