SPRINGFIELD — A group of health organizations says raising the legal age for purchasing tobacco products in Illinois from 18 to 21 would drastically reduce smoking among young people and cut into the $2 billion the state's Medicaid program spends annually on tobacco-related health problems.
American Lung Association spokeswoman Kathy Drea said that although there's "no single magic bullet to reduce tobacco use," Illinois has taken many steps in recent years to do so, including increasing taxes and banning smoking in public buildings and on the campuses of public colleges and universities.
Raising the legal age for purchasing cigarettes and other tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes, is the next logical step, supporters say.
State Sen. John Mulroe, D-Chicago, is sponsoring a bill to do just that.
"We know that smoking cigarettes can kill you," Mulroe said Thursday at a Statehouse news conference. "And if it doesn't kill you, it can harm or damage your heart, your lungs and/or your kidneys."
Supporters cited a 2015 study from the Institute of Medicine that found raising the smoking age to 21 would reduce smoking among 15- to 17-year-olds by 25 percent and among 18- to 20-year-olds by 15 percent. The report also notes that 90 percent of adult daily smokers began before age 19.
Many young smokers get their cigarettes from peers who are of legal age, said Dr. Ronald Johnson, a physician from Pittsfield and past president of the Illinois Academy of Family Physicians. Raising the legal age would "cut that supply line," Johnson said.
But Bill Fleischli, executive vice president of the Illinois Petroleum Marketers Association and Illinois Association of Convenience Stores, said 18-year-olds are mature enough to decide for themselves.
"You're old enough to vote at 18. You're old enough to serve your country at 18. You're old enough to die for your country at 18," Fleischli said. "I think you're old enough to make the adult decision whether you want to smoke."
He said he plans to recommend that his organization's board oppose the bill.
Supporters, however, noted that the legal age to purchase alcohol is 21 and that the Army, Navy and Marine Corps supported a similar law in Hawaii, which took effect Jan. 1.