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Legislation that would have increased the age to buy tobacco to 21 stalled in committee in 2015.

PARIS ACHEN - left to right, South Salem High School students Tyler Coates, Tori Doten, Conrad Thompson and Davis Carter appeared at the Capitol Tuesday to support raising the minimum age to buy tobacco to 21.A coalition of 20 health organizations has launched a campaign to combat a sobering trend: About seven kids every day become new smokers in Oregon.

The coalition wants state lawmakers to raise the legal age to buy tobacco from 18 to 21 in an effort to keep it out of high schools.

The Institute of Medicine projects that law change would reduce smoking by about 25 percent among 15- to 17-year-olds.

Hawaii in December 2015 became the first state to pass such a law, and the idea is gaining traction in more than 100 municipalities around the country, from New York City to Kansas City, Mo. California and New Jersey had similar proposals in its legislatures earlier this year.

PARIS ACHEN - Senate Majority Whip Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Beaverton, speaks at a campaign launch for 'Tobacco 21 for Oregon,' a coalition of 20 health organizations that want Oregon to raise the legal age to purchase tobacco to age 21In Oregon, a couple of lawmakers have already tried to pitch the idea. Most recently, Senate Majority Whip Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Beaverton, moved legislation in 2015. The bill stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee as other issues took priority.

“I would love for Oregon to follow in Hawaii’s footsteps and be one of the earliest adopters of raising the legal age for tobacco to 21,” Steiner Hayward said.

“I think raising the legal age to 21 is one of the best things we can do to prevent the devastating effects that nicotine addiction, tobacco addiction has had continues to have on Oregonians.”

Steiner Hayward, who works as a family physician, took the podium Tuesday at the coalition’s “Tobacco 21 for Oregon” campaign launch to declare her commitment to the cause.

“The later that people have access to tobacco or other nicotine-containing products the more likely we are to prevent people from becoming addicted,” Steiner Hayward said. “We also know that when 18-year-olds can buy tobacco they’re in our high schools. We have lots of kids that are 18 and in high school, and they can give cigarettes to their friends.”

National data indicates about 95 percent of smokers started using tobacco before age 21.

In Oregon, about 7,000 people die annually from tobacco-related diseases. Tobacco use is estimated to cost the state about $3 billion per year in health care costs and lost productivity, according to the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids.

Several students from South Salem High School on Tuesday signed pledges to abstain from using tobacco and wrote to their lawmakers to urge them to raise the legal age for buying the drug.

“I think it’ll make it a lot harder for kids to use it,” said Davis Carter, an 18-year-old South Salem student. “It’ll be a lot less accessible and stop it from getting into high schools as much.”

Luis Rodriguez, Oregon government relations director for the Cancer Action Network of the American Cancer Society, said no legislation has been filed this year to raise the age limit.

Members of the coalition, which also include the American Heart Association and American Lung Association, plan to give testimony Tuesday to the Senate Health Care Committee about why the law should change.

“We are really looking at 2016 as a way to educate lawmakers and educate the public about why this is such an important issue,” Rodriguez said. “Right now, we don’t have a vehicle, but we are looking forward to the future when we will.”

By Paris Achen
Portland Tribune Capital Bureau Reporter
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