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Another Voice: Tobacco 21 law will save young lives from ruin

By Tony Astran

I have had the privilege of serving as the public information specialist for the New York State Smokers’ Quitline since 2017. It is a bit serendipitous that I am here, as my father passed away from heart failure in 2008 as a result of smoking. He died young at age 55. Had he lived for four more years, he would have met my son. It breaks my heart to this day that the two of them never had a chance to spend time together.

My father tried at many points in his life to quit smoking, but it never stuck. He picked up a cigarette at age 13 because all the “cool” teenagers smoked. Unfortunately, once he started, there was no turning back.

When I speak with the Quit Coaches at the New York State Smokers’ Quitline about their experiences with callers, they tell me about two common themes. Most smokers want to quit, and most started smoking in their teenage years. I realize the temptation to be rebellious when you’re young. I realize America is a country of rugged individualism and plenty of rights.

But what about the right to not suffer? What about the right to live a healthy life? And what about the rights of millions of Americans who, year after year, endure the same heartbreak I experienced in 2008? According to the CDC, smoking is the leading cause of preventable death, killing more than 480,000 U.S. adults each year. That’s why the importance of Tobacco 21 signed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo cannot be overstated.

It’s true that while it will be illegal for retailers to sell tobacco products to anyone younger than age 21 in New York State, it’s still technically not illegal for young people to smoke. I’d be foolish to think this law will eradicate cigarette use among youth. But even one less person smoking is worth it.

I have a feeling this law will help many, many more people than that. Let’s face it – it’s a lot easier as a teen to get cigarettes from an 18-year-old than a 21-year-old. Big Tobacco knows that if you don’t start young, you’ll more likely never start.

With the signing of Tobacco 21 there may be those who question why 18- to 20-year-olds can vote and serve in the military but will not be allowed to purchase cigarettes. My answer: Three years go by fast in the grand scheme of life. But picking up a cigarette early and becoming addicted can affect decades to come.

Our team at the state Smokers’ Quitline deeply understands how difficult it is to quit smoking, even with our support and assistance from a health care professional. We find that the addiction is typically harder to break among those who started young. Tobacco 21 will ultimately make our job easier.

Had Tobacco 21 passed decades ago, perhaps my father might still be alive today to spend time with his grandson.

Tony Astran is public information specialist for the New York Smokers’ Quitline at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center.

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