Emanuel proposes raising smoking age to 21

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(Katie Tomosiunas / The DePaulia)

Mayor Rahm Emanuel introduced an ordinance that would raise the age of purchasing tobacco products from 18 to 21 years old.

The ordinance, which also includes tax and price hikes along with an age increase, was introduced to City Council on Jan. 13 and is an attempt to stop Chicagoans from smoking tobacco.

“Adolescents are more vulnerable than older adults to nicotine addiction, which can harm brain development, and four out of five adult smokers start before age 21,” according to the ordinance. “Raising the legal age would put tobacco products on par with alcohol and protect young adults from developing a dangerous life-long habit.”

Leonard Jason, a psychology professor who has studied smoking prevention and treatment, said this action is a step in the right direction for Chicago.

“Tobacco is the scourge of this country,” he said. “If you take all the people who die in automobile accidents and all the people who die in drug overdoses and all the people who die from firearm incidents — tobacco kills more people than all of those. We’re talking (about the equivalent of) an airplane of 1,000 (people) going down every day .”

Jason said the key to tackling tobacco use in the United States starts with prevention.

“If you really want to do something about tobacco, you have to get kids to stop smoking because people start in their youth,” he said.

Not everyone agrees with the new ordinance. Fernando, who asked for his last name excluded for personal reasons, is a 20-year-old psychology major who said he thinks the age restriction will not have the desired effect.

“Psychologically, I think it will be counterproductive because they’re just restricting a bigger population not to smoke, which will probably push them to actually start smoking,” he said.

Jason said he believes the tobacco problem is deep-seated in our society’s youth and their want to be popular.

“We need to deglamorize tobacco,” he said. “We need positive addictions — getting good grades, studying, working out, good nutrition — that’s what we need to be working on.”

The age increase would also include less conventional tobacco products such as e-cigarettes and chewing tobacco. Jason said it’s important that these products be included in the ordinance.

“They make it sound like it is safe to smoke,” he said. “It’s never safe to smoke. We need to stop all forms of tobacco use. There’s no safe form of tobacco use just as there’s no safe form of heroin use — it’s all addictive.”

Daniela Magallon, a 26-year-old political science major and non-smoker, said if it were only an age increase on purchasing cigarettes, tobacco use in general may not be affected.

“If they’re going to do it, they should go all around,” she said. “If not, it would steer more toward chewing tobacco and things like that, which is actually a little more harmful.”

Similar ordinances have been passed in other cities across the country including Kansas City, New York City and Evanston, Illinois.

Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl said her city has not experienced any problems since the ordinance was implemented last year.

“The ordinance creates a healthier community because there is less second-hand smoke and fewer people damaging their own lungs by smoking,” she said.

DePaul students expressed some concern that the age increase might motivate underage smokers to get tobacco products by illegal means.

“All those 18, 19 and 20-year-olds that were able to purchase before legally, well now that they’re addicted, they’re going to find a way to purchase it illegally,” Magallon said.

Fernando said more age restrictions on tobacco use will act similarly to those already using alcohol.

“It would be for a good cause and I definitely understand their intentions, but just like drinking, kids under 21 will still find a way to get it,” he said. “I know a lot of people around here that sell alcohol to people under 21.”

DePaul’s smoking policy, in conjunction with the city’s current ordinance, does not allow tobacco use inside any university buildings or within 15 feet from the entrance.

Even with the current policies in place, Magallon said she looks forward to no longer being overwhelmed by tobacco use on DePaul’s campuses.

“I think when people smoke, especially in public places, you force it on other people,” she said. “It would be nice to not walk down the street with the whiff of cigarette smoke, especially outside of doors and buildings.”

Jason said smoking in particular causes a larger problem to those who choose not to do it.

“A lot of people say it’s their personal business, but it’s not their personal business,” he said. “The second-hand smoke harms other folks, and it’s expensive at a very high cost to the other people who are dying because of it.”

In his book, “Principles of Social Change,” Jason chronicles the DePaul psychology program’s  involvement in implementing a similar tobacco use prevention system  in Woodridge, Illinois.

“We worked with police, commercial outlets, we started the whole procedure to basically fine stores who were selling tobacco to minors,” he said. “How can you tell us not to smoke when we can go to our pharmacists and all these stores that will sell us tobacco even though we’re 12 or 13?”

Jason said DePaul’s community psychology program has been working toward preventing tobacco use since it first began.

“Most people don’t realize it, but we at DePaul are responsible for setting up models that have been replicated across the United States, and now the world basically does not allow merchants to sell minors tobacco,” he said. “That’s a major sea of change that we helped produce.”

Fernando said DePaul’s smoking culture is already in too deep and will be hard to subside.

“There are a lot of smokers at DePaul compared to other colleges,” he said. “I don’t think it will change anything really.”

Jason said he remains optimistic, and wants to see DePaul remain at the forefront of smoking prevention.

“DePaul University needs to become the first university in the United States where nobody smokes,” Jason said. “If we can make DePaul smoke-free and show how far we have come, our university could become a model for the world.”

No official action has been taken on the ordinance. The next Chicago City Council meeting will be Feb. 10.