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February 8, 2018

Illinois lawmakers are considering raising the age required to purchase tobacco products, including e-cigarettes and vaping devices, from 18 to 21. If successful, this effort to limit adults’ freedom would likely not curb consumption, disregard the public health benefits provided by e-cigarettes and vaping products, and would cost the state millions of dollars in lost tax revenues.


At 18, individuals are legally considered adults. They can serve in war, they are tried as adults in courts, and they can amass tremendous amounts of debt in contractual agreements, such as student loans, which in 2016 averaged about $30,000. The federal government requires “almost all men 18-25 who are U.S. citizens or immigrants living in the U.S. … to register with Selective Service” in case there is a need for a military draft in a time of crisis.


If 18-year-old Americans are mature enough to fight and die for their country, amass debt, work full-time jobs, own homes, buy cars, and do just about everything else other adults are permitted to do, then why shouldn’t they be allowed to purchase tobacco and e-cigarette products?


Proponents of raising the tobacco age say increasing legal age limits prevents people from making poor health choices, but evidence shows raising the consumption age does not necessarily lead to the public health benefits lawmakers and anti-tobacco crusaders say they do.


The National Institute on Drug Abuse noted in its Monitoring the Future Study: Trends in Prevalence of Various Drugs that 58 percent of high school seniors had reported using alcohol in 2015. Thirty-five percent reported using marijuana. Alcohol and marijuana are illegal for persons under the age of 21 in every state, and yet there is no connection between lower consumption rates and age restrictions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports nearly 90 percent of tobacco users started smoking by age 18. Nearly all current smokers started by age 26.


More troubling, and contradictory, is the fact e-cigarettes and vaping devices have been included in some states in the same category as combustible tobacco cigarettes, ignoring completely that e-cigarettes and vaping devices do not use tobacco and are not even remotely as dangerous. It’s also vital policymakers understand a wealth of evidence shows e-cigarettes and vaping devices are high-quality tobacco-cessation tools.


Earlier in 2018, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a report finding “substantial evidence that completely switching from regular use of combustible cigarettes to e-cigarettes results in reduced short-term adverse health outcomes in several organ systems.” This finding matches the conclusions reached by other organizations and researchers who have found there are substantial health benefits linked to switching from tobacco products to e-cigarette and vaping devices.


In 2017, NHS Health Scotland declared “vaping … is less harmful than smoking.” In 2016, the Tobacco Advisory Group of the Royal College of Physicians determined the health hazards associated with e-cigarettes and vaping products “unlikely exceed 5% of the harm [caused by] smoking tobacco.” In 2015, Public Health England declared e-cigarette use as roughly “95% safer than smoking.”


Tobacco harm reduction tools such as e-cigarettes and vaping devices could also save states money. J. Scott Moody, chief executive officer and chief economist at State Budget Solutions, examined the impact of e-cigarettes on health care costs. Moody estimated Medicaid savings could have amounted to $48 billion in 2012 if e-cigarettes and vaping devices had been adopted in place of combustible cigarettes by all Medicaid recipients who now consume tobacco products.


Illinois is not likely to be an exception, and there are other important considerations to consider, too, such as state funding. Neighboring Indiana recently considered a similar proposal, but the state’s leadership ultimately rejected it, in part because it could “cost the state $14 million a year in lost cigarette tax revenue.”


Cigarette tax revenue is already underperforming in Illinois. The Illinois Policy Institute reported the state collected $807 million in tobacco and cigarette taxes in 2016, “$123 million less than the state anticipated it would make when it implemented [its most recent] cigarette tax hike.” With Illinois already facing massive budget problems, it makes little sense, if any, to pass legislation that will take additional revenue away from the state – especially since increasing the age requirement will have no measurable positive impact on public health.


Rather than limiting choices for young adults, state policymakers should promote tobacco harm reduction tools such as e-cigarettes and vaping devices. Doing so would help alleviate tobacco-related health care problems, not worsen them, and provide important streams of revenue for many small businesses across Illinois.

Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute.

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