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Big Tobacco faces new fight; age to buy smokes could go to 21

January 4, 2019

We let people become soldiers at 18. We punish 18-year-olds as adults if they commit a crime. They have the right to vote.

Since the divisive days of the Vietnam War, those making the laws have treated 18 as the advent of adulthood. It’s the time people can begin making their own decisions, for good or bad.

Soon enough, though, legislators in New Mexico might reverse one part of this practice.

State Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, has filed a bill to ban the sale of tobacco products to most people younger than 21. His proposal also applies to sales of e-cigarettes and liquid nicotine.

McSorley’s measure, Senate Bill 60, would make an exception for active-duty members of the military who are 18 or older. If they are brave enough to put themselves in harm’s way on a military mission, they can be foolhardy enough to buy cigarettes that damage hearts, minds and lungs.

McSorley’s bill is modeled after legislation that has surfaced all over the country. Some 340 cities, including New York, Chicago, Boston and Washington, D.C., have prohibited the sale of tobacco products to people younger than 21. California and five other states have adopted the same law.

Illinois came close to joining them. Its legislators approved a bill to raise the age for purchasing tobacco to 21, but Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed it late last year.

Rauner, a Republican who lost his office in the November election, stated in his veto message that the bill would “push residents to buy tobacco products from non-licensed vendors or in neighboring states” without reducing public health problems.

That same argument no doubt will be made in New Mexico, where sovereign tribes sell tobacco products.

But the more important question for the debate is whether increasing the legal age to buy cigarettes would reduce the number of smokers and cases of heart and lung disease.

Studies have shown mixed results.

The Food and Drug Administration in 1997 established 18 as the minimum age nationally to buy tobacco. That same year, towns in Massachusetts made a concerted effort to enforce the law. A study in those communities found that access to tobacco for teenagers did not change.

In contrast, a report in 2015 by the National Academy of Medicine concluded that increasing the age to buy tobacco to 21 would lead to immediate and long-term health benefits.

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids says raising the age also counteracts the tobacco industry’s campaign to turn kids who experiment with cigarettes into regular users.

McSorley, along with most Democrats in the Senate, in 2016 wanted to make recreational marijuana legal for people 25 and older. The original proposal by Democrats would have set the legal age at 21, but Republicans pushed for the amendment to 25 on grounds that the brain is not fully developed until then.

The proposal for legalizing marijuana failed anyway by a vote of 24-17.

Another bill for recreational marijuana is sure to surface this year. Because McSorley wants to raise the age for buying tobacco, he and other Democrats will have no choice but to propose an age limit of at least 21 for recreational marijuana.

Still, it might be just as difficult for a marijuana bill to clear the Senate this time around, even as more states legalize it.

Every Republican in the chamber voted against legalization of recreational marijuana three years ago. Their opposition might be just as strong today.

Six Democrats in the New Mexico Senate also opposed the marijuana measure. These Democrats — ranging in age from 52 to 94 — all remain in office.

Based on the makeup and mood of the Legislature, the legal age to buy tobacco might increase before recreational marijuana is on store shelves in New Mexico.

Put another way, the pipe dream continues while the move to stamp out tobacco inches ahead.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or 505-986-3080.