SPRINGFIELD — Should Illinois raise the legal smoking age from 18 to 21?
A proposal by Sen. John G. Mulroe, D-Chicago, would do just that.
Mulroe, surrounded by public health advocates, pitched the idea Thursday in a news conference. He said the change would serve the public well for several reasons, among them:
- Smoking is deadly, and the proof’s available on every pack of cigarettes in the form of a warning from the U.S. surgeon general.
- Smoking is expensive to the individual. A two-pack a-day habit in some areas (notably Chicago) can run a person $24 a day or more than $8,700 a year, Mulroe said.
- Smoking is expensive to the state. The senator and public health advocates said $5 billion annually is spent in Illinois treating smoking-related illnesses, and $2 billion of that comes from taxpayer-supported Medicaid funds.
- Raising the legal age for the purchase and possession of tobacco is a research-proven way to cut use among young people. Mulroe said research also shows that if people make it to 21 without smoking, they likely never start.
Mulroe said he’s not targeting smokers, many of whom have told him they support raising the legal age.
“The smokers tell me, ‘It’s a good bill, John,’” and when he asks why, they respond, “I wish I’d never started smoking.”
“They can’t quit,” Mulroe said. “The addiction makes them powerless.”
People who don’t smoke or don’t object to smoking shouldn’t shrug off the issue as none of their concern, said Kathy Drea of the American Lung Association in Illinois.
“Two billion dollars of the Illinois state budget is spent treating Medicaid recipients with tobacco-related diseases,” Drea said.
“That cost alone is one of the main, right reasons this bill should be passed,” she said. “Illinois should be doing everything it possibly can to reduce tobacco use and the associated disease, death and cost.”
Anthony Fisher of Reason.com, a branch of the libertarian Reason Foundation, said not everyone agrees.
While Mulroe and supporters make some valid points, the change in law the senator proposes “restricts the personal liberties of adults, which people who are above the age of 18 are, period,” Fisher said.
“They can be charged as adults under the law, they can fight and die for their country, and they are required to pay taxes. They’re adults, and they are entitled to make their own decisions, even if they are ill-advised decisions like taking up cigarette smoking,” he said.
Fisher acknowledged the public-health cost of smoking is “a fair and valid point.”
“But if we’re going to go there, let’s go further — let’s make it so that nobody under 21 can purchase sugar,” he said.
“That will make it hard for people to develop the sugar habit, (and) it will make it harder for people to develop diabetes,” he argued.
“Let’s just never stop,” he said. “Let’s just never stop using the public good as an excuse to curb people’s choices. We can go on forever with this.”
Fisher said he doesn’t smoke and doesn’t think people should, but “we’d actually be a freer and more tolerant society if we allow people to make those choices and not turn everything into a potential crime under civil and criminal codes.”
Mulroe’s legislation, Senate Bill 3011, would apply to the sale, purchase and possession of all tobacco products, as well as electronic cigarettes.
If passed, it would provide business penalties for retailers who sell tobacco products to anyone younger than 21 and make it a petty offense for anyone under 21 to be in possession.
— Illinois News Network reporter Greg Bishop contributed to this report.