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Coalition seeks to keep tobacco out of high schools

Campaign would raise tobacco-buying age to 21; organizers want to educate before trying to legislate

PARIS ACHEN - left to right, South Salem High School students Tyler Coates, Tori Doten, Conrad Thompson and Davis Carter appeared at the Capitol Tuesday to support raising the minimum age to buy tobacco to 21.A coalition of 20 health organizations has launched a campaign to combat a sobering trend: About seven kids every day become new smokers in Oregon.

The coalition wants state lawmakers to raise the legal age to buy tobacco from 18 to 21 in an effort to keep it out of high schools.

The Institute of Medicine projects that such a law change would reduce smoking by about 25 percent among 15- to 17-year-olds.

Hawaii became the first state to pass such a law in December 2015 and the idea is gaining traction in more than 100 municipalities around the country, from New York City to Kansas City, Mo. California and New Jersey had similar proposals.

In Oregon, a couple of lawmakers have already tried to pitch the idea. Most recently, Senate Majority Whip Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Beaverton, proposed legislation in 2015 but the bill stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“I would love for Oregon to follow in Hawaii’s footsteps and be one of the earliest adopters of raising the legal age for tobacco to 21,” Steiner Hayward said.

Steiner Hayward, who works as a family physician, took the podium last Tuesday at the coalition’s “Tobacco 21 for Oregon” campaign launch to declare her commitment to the cause.

National data indicates about 95 percent of smokers started using tobacco before age 21. In Oregon, about 7,000 people die annually from tobacco-related diseases. Tobacco use is estimated to cost the state about $3 billion per year in health care costs and lost productivity, according to the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids.PARIS ACHEN - Senate Majority Whip Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Beaverton, speaks at a campaign launch for 'Tobacco 21 for Oregon,' a coalition of 20 health organizations that want Oregon to raise the legal age to purchase tobacco to age 21

Members of the coalition, which also include the American Heart Association and American Lung Association, plan to give testimony Tuesday to the Senate Health Care Committee about why the law should change.

Luis Rodriguez, Oregon government relations director for the Cancer Action Network of the American Cancer Society, said no legislation has been filed this year to raise the age limit. “We are really looking at 2016 as a way to educate lawmakers and educate the public about why this is such an important issue,” Rodriguez said. “Right now, we don’t have a vehicle, but we are looking forward to the future when we will.”