Texas Cigarette Buying Age Would Be Highest in U.S. Under Bill

Texas would become the first state to raise the age to buy cigarettes to 21 from 18 as a way to curtail teenage smoking in a legislative proposal that may reduce tax collections.

The measure introduced last month covers all tobacco products and is designed to cut $1.6 billion in Medicaid costs for providing health care to smokers, according to the author, state Senator Carlos Uresti, a San Antonio Democrat.

“It’s costing the state hundreds of millions of dollars to care for the people with smoking-related illnesses,” said Uresti, 49. “Maybe we can be a leader on this issue.”

Alabama, Alaska, New Jersey and Utah have raised the age to buy cigarettes to 19, while other states have kept the age at 18, said Thomas Carr, director of national policy for the American Lung Association in Washington. A proposal introduced in the Oklahoma House this year would increase the smoking age to 19.

About 600,000 middle-school students and 3 million high school students smoke cigarettes, according to U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin. She has urged policies to reduce teen smoking. About one of five deaths in the U.S. annually is tied to smoking, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Raising the purchase age “could have a real impact on smoking prevalence,” said Maggie Mahoney, deputy director of the Tobacco Control Legal Consortium, a St. Paul, Minnesota-based group of lawyers that assists tobacco control efforts. “By reducing the prevalence of smoking in this age group, fewer young adults will become addicted to cigarettes.”

Cigarette Tax

Texas charges a $1.41 tax on a package of 20 cigarettes. Increasing the age requirement may result in a sales decline and reduce revenue by $40 million annually, according to the Legislative Budget Board, which advises lawmakers.

The Republican-dominated legislature may balk at the proposal, said Matt Mackowiak, president of Potomac Strategy Group, a Washington-based political consultant who works for Texas Republicans. Lawmakers may refuse to give up the revenue because of “uncertainty about education funding and other big ticket items,” he said.

The measure, pending before a legislative committee, needs an explanation of how reduced tax collections would be recouped, said Mackowiak.

Uresti disputes the $40 million estimate because it doesn’t consider possible cost savings from reducing the number of smokers. He said his staff is working with the board to come up with better estimates.

A few states propose raising the smoking age every year, said Karmen Hanson, a program manager at the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver. No state has raised the age since 2006, Carr said.

A proposal in Rhode Island to increase the age to 21 died in the legislature in 2010. Opponents of the measures say 18-year-olds should be able to make their own decisions.

“There’s also a liberty aspect,” Mackowiak said. “You are an adult when you’re 18.”

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