Bill Frist and Matthew L. Myers, Guest columnists
As the leading cause of preventable death in Tennessee, tobacco use is shortening the lives of millions of people, affecting the health of children and adding $2.6 billion in health care costs to the state annually.
Nearly one in four Tennesseans smoke. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention surveys show that 20.3 percent of Tennessee high school students reported using cigarettes, cigars, smokeless tobacco or electronic cigarettes at least once during the last 30 days. Based on current smoking rates, there are 125,000 kids in Tennessee today who will ultimately die from smoking, and smoking still kills more people each year than alcohol, AIDS, car crashes, illegal drugs, murders and suicides combined.
In addition, we are also facing a new epidemic of youth e-cigarette use. Nationally, use of e-cigarettes by high school students rose 78 percent in 2018, and more than 3.6 million middle and high school students used e-cigarettes.
The good news, however, is that there are proven solutions. Over the last 20 years, states across the country have dramatically reduced tobacco use among youth by raising tobacco taxes, funding prevention programs and passing strong smoke-free laws. In the last few years, states have started raising the sales age for tobacco from 18 to 21. Research has shown that nearly 95 percent of adults who smoke started smoking before the age of 21. Raising the sale age would mean fewer teens would have access to tobacco products (including e-cigarettes) when their brains are still developing and more prone to addiction. Experts estimate that raising the tobacco sale age to 21 will, over time, reduce the smoking rate nationally by about 12 percent and smoking-related deaths by 10 percent, which translates into 223,000 fewer premature deaths, 50,000 fewer deaths from lung cancer and 4.2 million fewer years of life lost.
Former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, M.D., is founder and chairman of NashvilleHealth, and Matthew L. Myers is president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
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