To the Editor:
When I was young, I made a decision that would change my life forever: I picked up my first cigarette. It was only a matter of time before it became an addiction. Unfortunately, this was just what Big Tobacco wanted – that was 41 years ago – and it’s still their mission today.
Now, as an adult and a father myself, I am still battling to overcome this addiction and working with state resources to smoke my last cigarette. I want to be here the day that my daughter walks down the aisle, and for countless other future occasions. That’s my personal battle. However, as a lawmaker the battlefield looks different, and this legislative session we have two opportunities to make headway in the fight against Big Tobacco: by supporting legislation which will increase the statewide age of sale of tobacco products from 18 to 21 and, additionally, by fully funding Rhode Island’s tobacco control program.
Research shows that if a person does not begin smoking at a young age, they are much less likely to ever smoke. In fact, 95 percent of adults who smoke started smoking before the age of 21 and nearly 100 percent started by age 26. That’s why the tobacco industry pours over $26 million in marketing dollars into the Ocean State each year, attempting to hook the next generation of smokers.
We also know that once a person picks up this deadly addiction, it’s tough to quit. The science backs it up, and I can attest to this first hand. That’s why it’s so critical we have resources in place to help tobacco users quit and help prevent others from ever picking up their first cigarette. This is where programs like the State Department of Public Health Quitline come into play, providing the support tobacco users need to overcome the addiction. These programs save the state countless long-term healthcare dollars by keeping our residents healthier, but like any resource, they cost money to run.
Unfortunately, Rhode Island consistently underfunds its tobacco control program at only three percent of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommended amount. Can you believe that equates to roughly $0.35 per Rhode Island resident on state programs to prevent youth from smoking and help adults quit? That is less than the cost of the postage stamp. I find this number unacceptable, especially given that tobacco is the number one cause of preventable death in Rhode Island, and one-third of all cancer deaths are related to tobacco use.
Raising the age of sale for tobacco products is another step toward saving lives, and restricting youth and young adult access to tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, can be a critical component of reducing initiation and lifelong tobacco addiction. Twelve states have already increased the age of sale of tobacco and e-cigarettes to 21, including most of New England, and their young people are better off because of it. It’s time for Rhode Island to follow this trend.
Unfortunately, I can’t go back in time and change the decision I made when I was young – but I can, and will, play a part in ensuring other young people don’t go down this same path. I urge my colleagues in the General Assembly to join me in supporting lifesaving tobacco control legislation, including an increase in the age of sale of tobacco to 21 and by fully funding Rhode Island’s tobacco control program at the CDC recommended amount.
For those who want to follow my quitting journey or offer words of support, I encourage you to check out my journey on social media by searching #WatchBennettQuit, or by following the Rhode Island chapter of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (@ACSCANRI) on Facebook and Twitter. I’m grateful for your support as I work to kick this addiction once and for all, and encourage my colleagues to join me in passing legislation that will ensure our next generation of Rhode Island kids never become addicted in the first place.
Representative David Bennett, RN
District 20-Warwick, Cranston