State after state, town after town, communities in other states are moving quickly to address one of the most critical public health issues facing our country: youth access to tobacco. Other states are raising the legal sales age of tobacco to age 21 while Pennsylvania lags behind.
Approximately 95 percent of smokers try their first cigarette before the age of 21. In a 2015 report, the National Academy of Medicine predicted that smoking would be reduced by 25 percent for 15-17 year olds and 15 percent for 18-20 year olds if the tobacco sales age increased to 21.
The legislative effort to raise the legal sales age of tobacco to 21 will significantly reduce youth tobacco consumption and save thousands of lives. This is important for the health of all youth, but for LGBT youth, it’s even more critical. In Philadelphia, 34.6 percent of LGBT youth 18-24 consume tobacco according to the 2018 Pennsylvania LGBT Health Needs Assessment. In the Lehigh Valley, it’s even worse: 47.4% percent of LGBT youth smoke -— this is compared to 18 percent of the general population.
These numbers foreshadow a scary trajectory for the future health challenges of LGBT youth. All of the science says the same thing: If Pennsylvania raises the legal sales age of tobacco to 21, youth are less likely to start smoking. We know that this will make a significant difference for LGBT youth who are so disparately impacted by tobacco.
I recently heard from a young adult who told me that she couldn’t even count the number of times she tried to quit smoking. Once hooked on nicotine, it is very hard to quit. Some research even suggests that it takes 30 attempts to kick the tobacco habit. Our LGBT community deserves long, thriving, proud lives where we can truly be ourselves. This is what we’ve been fighting for. This is what those who came before us were fighting for. We can’t sit back and allow the next generation of LGBT youth to be addicted to tobacco.
What’s more, this policy proposal enjoys broad public support from a diverse cross-section of Pennsylvanians. More than 68 percent of Pennsylvanians including a majority of Republicans, Democrats, current smokers and former smokers all agree that the legal sales age of tobacco should be increased to age 21. With this widespread support for a fair-minded health solution, policy makers in Harrisburg should be pleased to make such a change.
The truth is that LGBT youth bravely navigate through many stressors in their lives: family rejection, school bullying, harassment and more. They are already living at risk due to many social challenges and nicotine addiction makes it worse. Tobacco is the leading preventable cause of death for the LGBT community and the leading cause of the 12 most common types of cancer. When we raise the legal sales age to 21, Pennsylvania will join many other states in taking this public health issue seriously.
To be sure, no single policy solution will block every youth from accessing tobacco, but raising the legal sales age is a solution proven to work in other states. We should recognize the power of this legislative proposal. The evidence is clear: Pennsylvania’s legislators should raise the legal sales age of tobacco to age 21. The LGBT community should fiercely advocate for this. We can prevent the next generation of LGBT youth from getting hooked on tobacco. And we can do this now. n
Executive Director, Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center