Most Kentuckians support raising the age to buy tobacco to 21; studies say this would decrease youth and adult smoking rates

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

If increasing the minimum legal age from 18 to 21 to buy tobacco products would help decrease the smoking rate in Kentucky and the majority of Kentuckians support such a change, perhaps the question for the General Assembly is: “Why wouldn’t we do that?”

That’s the attitude of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, which co-funds the Kentucky Health Issues Poll that found that 58 percent of Kentucky adults support increasing the minimum age to buy tobacco products to 21.

“The research shows that most tobacco use starts in the teen and young-adult years and that making it a little bit harder to buy the products significantly reduces their use,” foundation President and CEO Ben Chandler said in a news release. “We also know that smoking damages nearly every organ in the body and leads to a myriad of diseases later on. So raising the legal age to buy tobacco is one of the easiest policy changes Kentucky can make to improve health and shrink health care costs. Our poll shows that the majority of Kentuckians support it, so why wouldn’t we do that?”

The poll, taken Sept. 11 through Oct. 19, found that support for a higher legal-tobacco age was equal among Democrats and Republicans, at 59 percent.

This was about the same as the the last time KHIP asked this question, in 2015, but the poll saw an increase in support among independents, increasing to 65 percent from 55 percent.

Kentucky has the third highest youth smoking rate in the nation, with 17 percent of its high-school students smoking, and use of electronic cigarettes growing,

“The longer we can keep our youth from smoking, and the harder we make it to buy cigarettes, the healthier Kentucky will be. It’s that clear-cut,” Chandler said. 

California and Hawaii, along with more than 200 local jurisdictions in 14 other states, have raised the minimum legal age to buy tobacco products to 21. Chandler notes that Kentucky law prohibits local jurisdictions in Kentucky from passing youth access legislation for tobacco.

Rep. David Watkins, a retired physician from Henderson, submitted such legislation (House Bill 299) during last year’s legislative session, but it did not come to a vote.

While a majority in every region supported increasing the age to 21, support was higher in Western Kentucky (61 percent), Eastern Kentucky (60 percent) and the Louisville area (59 percent) than in Northern Kentucky (51 percent) and the Lexington area (53 percent). The regional sample sizes are smaller than the overall sample, so they have higher error margins than the full sample’s margin of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.

The poll surveyed a random sample of  1,580 Kentucky adults via landlines and cell phones. It was conducted by the Institute for Policy Research at the University of Cincinnati for the foundation and Interact for Health, a Cincinnati-area health foundation. 

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