Tennessee lawmakers push to raise cigarette and e-cigarette smoking age to 21

Tennessee legislators introduced two bills this session to raise the legal age from 18 to 21 to purchase and use cigarettes and e-cigarettes, including Juuls

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Tennessee lawmakers push to raise cigarette and e-cigarette smoking age to 21

Eva Durchholz

This session, the Tennessee legislature has introduced two bills, HB1419 and SB0738, to raise the smoking age for cigarettes and e-cigarettes to 21. If Tennessee passed such a bill, it would join 11 states and 450 localities that have raised their smoking age to 21.

The House version of the bill, HB1419, failed in committee while the Senate version of the bill, SB0738, is still in progress in the General Subcommittee of Senate Commerce and Labor Committee.

According to a poll of 600 registered voters, 77 percent of Tennesseans are concerned about the use of e-cigarettes by young people, and roughly two thirds of Tennesseans support raising the smoking age from 18 to 21.

Use of e-cigarettes has exploded among young people. In 2018, the number of high school age students who had reported using an e-cigarette nearly doubled, with now more than one in three high school seniors reporting having used an e-cigarette.

Juul is by far the most common e-cigarette, occupying 70 percent of the e-cigarette market in 2018. A Juul is a sleek device which resembles a flash drive and allows a user to inhale flavored vapor which contains nicotine – each Juul pod contains the same amount of nicotine as two packs of cigarettes, though no tobacco.

At Vanderbilt, only 13 percent of respondents to the 2018 survey on alcohol and other drugs reported having used tobacco in the previous 30 days, according to data provided by Laura Walaszek Dermody, Director of Assessments and Special Projects. However, Juuling is widespread.

“A lot of kids have Juuls on campus, they’re really prevalent at Vanderbilt and campuses everywhere,” third-year Chris Jung said. “They’ve become a part of college culture.”

Many students agree that e-cigarettes likely have some negative health effects but aren’t sure whether raising the smoking age would be effective at curbing smoking and e-cigarette use on campus.

Second-year Anica Mohammadkhah, who says she knows of a gas station near campus that doesn’t check IDs, doesn’t think the legislation will stop any Vanderbilt students from smoking.

“ I think Juuls are bad for people’s health, there’s research supporting that,”  Mohammadkhah said. “But a lot of things are bad for people’s health.”

Mohammedkhah pointed to the fact that students know alcohol consumption has adverse health effects, yet many students in college still drink. Jung, however, said that he thought the legislation could help cut down on cigarette and e-cigarette use, even if it doesn’t end it completely.

“Even among people who do have friend who is 21, it’s an extra step between you and a person buying [Juul] pods, which is a deterrent,” Jung said.

Others, like third-year Riyan Kabir, think raising the smoking age would be effective at limiting smoking among middle and high school students. However, Kabir said that he doesn’t think the law would be effective in prohibiting smoking at Vanderbilt because everyone has friends that are over 21.

Regardless of the efficacy of raising the smoking age, Louise Hanson, Medical Director of the Zerfoss Student Health Center, said that she supports the legislature’s efforts to work on the health of the state.

“The more we can postpone addictive behaviors in people whose brains are still developing, the less likely it is for people to be addicted,” Hanson said. “College students are young adults and their brains are still not fully formed, the frontal lobe is still growing and evolving well into the 20’s. The more we can postpone use of addictive substances in a still-evolving brain, the better.”

Research on health effects of e-cigarettes is lacking, though Hanson shared that nicotine is still a highly addictive substance and that the FDA has recently started investigating a link between e-cigarette use and seizures.

“I think we’re all realistic enough to know that for college students who aren’t living in a parent’s home, it’s a little harder to enforce rules like this – but the intentions are good,” Hanson said.

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