Author: Nevin Zablotsky, DMD
As we approach the holiday season I am reminded of the gifts of love we share with our families, as well as the New Year’s resolutions we make and try to keep after Jan. 1 history.
I am a periodontist having practiced in Burlington and South Burlington for the past 40 years. In that time I have treated patients that have been severely compromised by tobacco. Some have lost teeth from advanced periodontal disease and some have lost parts of their tongue and jaw due to oral cancer, leaving them significantly compromised functionally as well as well as emotionally. I have had to advise teenagers and their families that their tobacco chewing habit had caused significant enough changes in their mouth to warrant a biopsy of the involved area. This caused great stress to them as they waited a week to find out the results. Some may think that it takes many years for tobacco use to compromise one’s health, but teenagers can die a horrible death from tobacco use if they are one of the unlucky ones who is genetically predisposed to oral cancer.
Over the years, I have traveled throughout Vermont teaching about tobacco and nicotine addiction to elementary, junior and senior high school students. I feel that I have a good sense of what kids are thinking about these subjects. The elementary school students seem to understand that cigarettes are bad for them. When one talks to the middle school kids, there are some that are beginning to think that cigarettes and smokeless tobacco use is cool, and when speaking to high school students, there is a larger percentage of them that have begun to use a variety of these products, ranging from cigarettes and cigars, to hookahs, to a variety of e-cigarettes, with the newest product, Juul, going viral. This product has become so much of a problem local schools have sent letters to parents warning them of its sudden increase in usage .
It is legal for anyone over 18 to purchase all of these tobacco and nicotine products. Here are some facts to chew on.
About 95 percent of adult smokers begin smoking before they turn 21. Two-thirds of 10th grade students and nearly half of eighth grade students say it is easy to get cigarettes. More 18- and 19-year-olds using in high school means younger kids have daily contact with students who can legally purchase tobacco products.
I am often told that when one reaches the age of 18 they are mature enough to vote, or join the military, so therefore they are mature enough to decide on using tobacco products.
Tobacco use costs the military about $1.6 billion annually in lost productivity and health care expenses tied to respiratory problems, cardiovascular disease and slower healing, according to the Department of Defense data. That’s expected to climb to $19 billion during the next 10 years and result in 175,000 premature deaths. The Air Force bans tobacco in recreation facilities, and the Navy banned tobacco on all submarines. The Vermont National Guard also stated that they would abide by Tobacco 21 legislation if it passed, again citing readiness and fitness.
An argument has been made that tobacco retailers’ businesses will be irreparably harmed if tobacco 21 is implemented. Studies show that its impact over the first 5-8 years will be between one quarter and one half of a percent.
Vermont law does not allow the sale of alcohol to anyone under 21, and the new marijuana law passed last year also restricts its usage to those over 21. Given the proven health risks of tobacco use, why does the present law allow tobacco usage at age 18?
It has been calculated that 10,000 kids now under 18 and alive in Vermont will ultimately die prematurely from the smoking habit they began in their teenage years.
Six states have passed tobacco 21 legislation. This includes Massachusetts and Maine, with New York likely to join this group. Do we really want kids coming from our surrounding states coming here to get their cigarettes or e-cigarettes?
Even Altria and R.J. Reynolds, two of the largest tobacco companies in the world have stated that the age of sale should be 21.
So as we approach the new year I want to appeal to our representatives, to resolve to pass tobacco 21 in the 2019 legislative session, and remind them about how much suffering they can prevent. The decisions they make will have major consequences for generations to come. What a great resolution to keep. What a great holiday gift for us all.
Note: This commentary is by Nevin Zablotsky, DMD, a retired periodontist who practiced in South Burlington and the Coalition for a Tobacco Free Vermont.