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Increased Smoking Age Benefits Our Military

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February 1, 2017

"If an eighteen year old can sign up to fight and die for his country, an eighteen year old ought to be able to buy a pack of cigarettes."

I have heard that line repeated ad nauseum over the ten years I have been working to raise the smoking age in the State of Texas. As a country, as a state, and as elected officials, we are charged with protecting our children. We must give great pause before we send them into the horrors of war. We must strive to make prudent choices when making decisions that can harm our children. Young adults, those that we ask to serve and protect, are the same men and women who can fall victim to a lifetime of the ravages of cigarettes and addiction to nicotine.

As a Marine myself and the brother of a Marine, the father of a Marine, and the son of an airman, I know first-hand the great sacrifice and profound responsibility of serving in the United States Military. Comparing one's ability to purchase cigarettes with the weighty decision to enlist in the armed forces is neither appropriate nor equivalent, and an attempt to force the two as comparable decisions cheapens the service of the many hundreds of thousands of men and women who serve our country.

First and foremost, many eighteen year olds are still in high school, and their immediate social groups and daily routines resemble the lives led by their underage peers. According to the Institute of Medicine, 90% of daily smokers report using their first cigarette before turning 19 years old, and the majority of underage users rely on social sources such as friends and family to get tobacco products. By increasing the smoking age to 21, the age group affected most will actually be those ages 15-17, with 25% fewer kids trying cigarettes due to decreased access amongst their friends.

The United States Military is only as strong as the enlisted members who help to support our missions, and tobacco use among the enlisted undermines that strength.  In April, 2016, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter issued a memo to the Armed Forces noting that tobacco usage costs the Department of Defense approximately $1.6 billion per year. Reducing tobacco usage among today's enlisted population is the only way to begin reigning in the astronomical costs of providing health care for tomorrow's veterans.

Using tobacco products compounds other health issues, which has a direct impact on the number of individuals able to meet combat-ready fitness standards. In 2010, over 100 retired Generals, Admirals, and other senior-level military officials released a report using data from the Department of Defense, the authors noted "an alarming 75 percent of all young Americans 17 to 24 years of age are unable to join the military because they fail to graduate from high school, have criminal records, or are physically unfit." The Secretary of the Navy, Donald Winter, in his 2008 tobacco policy says "tobacco use is associated with higher absenteeism, diminished motor and perceptual skill, and poor endurance."

Personal choices matter. Whether a young adult decides to consume a tobacco product has significant long-term consequences. All I am asking is that we put a little distance between youthful recklessness and the legal ability to purchase these highly addictive products. Because we enlist our 18-years olds to serve and fight is actually a reason why we should raise our smoking age. For the benefit of our kids, and our country, Texas should act now and raise our smoking age to 21. Semper Fi!