EDITOR'S NOTE: This is one of three stories (one gives a Pekin perspective and can be found by clicking here, and the other gives the perspective of youth in Galesburg and can be found by clicking here) that are part of a regional project that looks at the effort statewide and locally to push the legal age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21, while removing current penalties for tobacco possession for those 18 and under. Illinois is looking to become the sixth state to change the purchase age. In the meantime, 16 Illinois cities, including Chicago and Peoria, have already made the legal age 21. This project is the result of work by daily newspapers in the GateHouse Western Illinois Division.

Some municipalities in central Illinois are not waiting for Illinois to become the sixth state in the nation to stop merchants from selling tobacco products, electronic cigarettes and alternative cigarette products to people under the age of 21.

The Illinois Senate passed Tobacco 21 on April 25 and it was sent to the House Rules Committee on April 26 where it remains. 

In a nutshell, Tobacco 21 prohibits the legal sale of tobacco products or vaping materials in Illinois to 21. The bill makes it a Class A misdemeanor for a person who is under 21 years of age to use a false or forged identification card or to get tobacco or e-cigarette products. The bill eliminates the penalty for possession of a cigar, cigarette, smokeless tobacco, or tobacco in any of its forms by persons under 18 years of age.


Municipal trailblazers

Sen. Julie Morrison, D-Deerfield, chief sponsor of the bill, said Tobacco 21 was brought to the General Assembly “in the last couple of years, but the General Assembly has not been able to build up enough steam to make it all the way to the governor’s desk.” Morrison said this time there is a coalition of health care providers and advocacy groups backing the bill.

“This is a personal issue for me,” said Morrison. “I have a lot of communities in my district that have already, as I believe already Peoria has, approved local ordinances and raised the age to 21 to purchase tobacco products.

“A lot of times it is our local communities that sort of blaze the trail and the state realizes, ‘yeah, the sky is not falling, and we should be doing this, too.’ So I was delighted to see the response from the Senate. It has an excellent strong sponsor in the House of Representatives. Camille Lilly, D-Chicago, and (I) have high hopes that this will be voted on (soon) in committee in the house.”

The passage of Tobacco 21 will decrease cigarette tax receipts in the state by $35 million to $40 million per fiscal year and the sales tax receipts by $6 million to $8 million. In total, this bill is estimated to decrease receipts by $41-$48 million in the first year, according to the narrative with HB4297 on the Illinois General Assembly website.

Five states and 14 municipalities have passed Tobacco 21.

Why now?

The state, said Morrison, spends almost $2 billion a year on Medicaid expenses directly related to smoking disease, lung and cardiovascular diseases.

“A good way for us to start to get a grip on our state health care fund is to prevent people from becoming smokers and developing these diseases,” she said. “We’ve known since the ’60s that this causes cancer, this causes emphysema, this causes cardiovascular disease, so we are way overdue for this kind of change in Illinois.”

Morrison said that 90 percent of the people who smoke today started smoking as teenagers.

“So there’s pretty good statistics and data that shows if we can stall the beginning of someone’s first cigarette until they are at least 21 there’s a really good chance they won’t start at all, that they won’t become smokers,” said Morrison. “It’s those teenage years that tend to be the ones that trap smokers for the rest of their lives.”

In recent weeks, Peoria and Washington followed the path of 14 northern Illinois communities that already have passed Tobacco 21 ordinances. Pekin in early April heard a presentation by the Tazewell County Health Department about Tobacco 21 and could bring it to the council in the future.

Morrison said the government has a role in regulating products that it knows are harmful to its citizens. Alcohol consumption by teens is also regulated until age 21. She said teenage smokers get their smoking materials through their social circles from people who are a year to three years older than them.

“Fifteen-year-olds do not associate with 21-year-olds,” she said. “If we can cut off that social supply we have gone a long way from preventing young smokers from starting.”

Morrison said there are programs already in place for adults to help 18- to 21-year-olds quit if Tobacco 21 becomes law.

Will it work?

The hope of Tobacco 21 advocates is that the brains of teens will develop enough in those few extra years to give them the strength to say no to nicotine.

Dr. Kirk Moberg, executive medical director of the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery at UnityPoint Health, said he supports the legislation, but it can only do so much. Teens with family or peer groups that smoke are at greater risk.

Moberg said there are other factors beyond age that go into the decision to smoke or not smoke that cause a greater risk of using tobacco.

“There is going to be continued underage smoking just like there is now,” said Moberg. “However, the idea is that if it is harder, there is a part of the population that’s just not going to take the risk. 

“And that part of the population then may not decide to start smoking, given that extra three years while their brain has had a chance to mature.”

Tobacco 21, said Moberg, is based on the normal development of the frontal lobe of the brain, which does not fully mature until age 25 or 26. The executive function of the brain, which is the decision making part of the brain, is more developed at 21 than at 18, he said. The more developed the brain, he said, the better chance of good choices.

“When I talk about executive function, I’m talking about the ability to make good decisions — to act less compulsively or impulsively,” said Moberg. “So there’s more reasoning and more rational thinking going on as this part of the brain develops.

“There is nothing magic about 21 except we have said 21 is the gateway for other types of activities, so I assume that’s why they’ve chosen that age. Alcohol, for example, is 21.”

The statistics

The Illinois Department of Public Health supports Tobacco 21, according to Stacie Ealey, Tazewell County Health Department director of Community Health.

A statewide phone survey was conducted by the American Journal of Preventative Medicine in January that shows that three out of four adults in the United States support a minimum age of 21 for the sale of tobacco products and seven out of 10 U.S. adult cigarette smokers favor the age change.

According to numbers provided by the IDPH, 443,000 deaths in the United States are attributed to diseases such as various cancers, stroke, pulmonary disease, ischemic heart disease and other illnesses related to smoking.

“I have heard nothing against Tobacco 21,” said Ealey. “The argument for it, of course, is it would keep tobacco products out of the hands of youth until the age of 21, whereas currently they can be exposed legally as soon as 18.

“One thing about the act that is important for jurisdictions looking at passing the Tobacco 21 Ordinance is to make sure they include e-cigarettes, because we found through our Illinois Youth Survey data, which is specific to Tazewell County, that more youth are experimenting and using e-cigarettes than regular cigarettes.”