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A selection of cigarettes inside Snyder Food & Gas on Friday, Jan. 3, 2020, in Cheyenne. The legal age to buy tobacco products in the U.S. was recently changed from 18 to 21. Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

CHEYENNE – As part of a sweeping spending bill, President Donald Trump recently signed a new minimum age requirement for tobacco purchases into law. Just before Christmas, the age to buy tobacco products was raised to 21 everywhere in the country.

The change comes as a vaping epidemic has hit teenagers across the nation. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, teens today are more likely to use some form of e-cigarettes than cigarettes, but those who smoke e-cigarettes are, in turn, more likely to start smoking cigarettes.

“No tobacco products are safe for anyone, but they’re particularly dangerous for youth,” said Erika Sward, assistant vice president of national advocacy for the American Lung Association.

Sward cited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s youth tobacco survey, explaining that one in every four kids vape. According to the survey, the percent of youth who vaped within the month of the survey more than tripled in the past two years, going from 11.7% in 2017 to 27.5% in 2019.

“These products are very addictive,” Sward said. “Smoking sets you up for a lifetime of health issues.”

And while vaping was marketed as a “healthier” alternative to smoking, Sward said the products are still dangerous and contain cancer-causing chemicals. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, companies that manufacture vapes also aren’t required to submit the ingredients used in production to the Food and Drug Administration, so it’s difficult for users to know exactly what their vapes contain.

Sward said the new law is a step in the right direction on the path to end tobacco use.

“We know that it will save lives,” she said.

Smoking-related illnesses kill 480,000 Americans each year, and smokers die an average of 10 years earlier than non-smokers, according to the CDC. While many smoking-related illnesses occur later in life, Brittany Wardle, project director of community prevention for Cheyenne Regional Medical Center, said 95% of all smokers start before the age of 21.

“Especially for kids, flavored tobacco is where most of them start,” Wardle said.

Wardle and Sward both noted that tobacco companies know this and have long used flavors like menthol to hook teens and young adults on smoking. By targeting a younger audience, tobacco companies are setting up their clientele for years to come due to the addictive nature of their products.

Wardle said any barriers to youth getting their hands on these products are beneficial, but added there’s still more that can be done.

Banning fun, fruity flavors that attract younger generations to tobacco is one way Wardle said the state can further reduce smoking. Because younger generations are significantly more sensitive to cost, Wardle said raising tobacco taxes would also curb use.

“Our low tax rates here in Wyoming greatly impact youth use of tobacco,” Wardle said.

Compared to the rest of the country, Wyoming sits near the bottom in terms of tobacco taxation. Where residents here pay 60 cents in taxes per pack of cigarettes, people living in New York pay $4.35 in taxes alone.

To try to curb the youth tobacco problem, the Wyoming Department of Health teamed up with National Jewish Health to develop a program called “My Life, My Quit” to specifically help teens quit vaping or smoking. By calling 855-891-9989 or visiting mylifemyquit.com, teens can connect with a personal coach and access information to help them quit.

Adults who wish to quit smoking can get help through the Wyoming Quit Tobacco Program. Interested residents can call 800-784-8669 or visit www.quitwyo.org. Free nicotine replacement therapy, Chantix and free phone or online support is available.

Margaret Austin is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s local government reporter. She can be reached at maustin@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3152. Follow her on Twitter at @MargaretMAustin.

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