In an effort to decrease the number of young people using tobacco products, the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department is launching a Lawrence Tobacco 21 Task Force.
The group, comprising representatives from various local organizations, will meet for the first time in a public forum Thursday from 1 to 2:30 p.m. at the Lawrence College and Career Center, 2910 Haskell Ave.
Chris Tilden, community health director at the health department, said the task force’s launch was organized in conjunction with the annual Great American Smokeout, a national intervention effort that encourages smokers to ditch the habit.
“We promote the idea that people using tobacco products seek out resources to try to quit, but we also know that Big Tobacco markets to a lot of population, including kids,” Tilden said. “And one way to fight tobacco is to try to limit exposure to kids and keep tobacco products out of their hands.”
Spearheaded locally by the community health coalition LiveWell Lawrence, Tobacco 21 is a national movement that encourages policymakers to increase the legal age at which individuals can purchase tobacco and nicotine products. So far, according to the national Tobacco 21 website, more than 270 cities and counties in 18 states have adopted ordinances to raise the purchasing age to 21.
Most of the Kansas City metro area has made the switch in recent years, as well as communities in other parts of the state, such as Iola in southeastern Kansas and Garden City out west.
“We have had some discussions in the community about it,” Tilden said. “But it felt like with 18 Kansas jurisdictions now having raised the tobacco age to 21, that it was time to work with communities in Douglas County and see if we can get something on the books like these other communities across the state and nation.”
While the health department doesn’t have numbers specific to adolescent tobacco use, Tilden said roughly 15 percent of Douglas County adults report using some kind of tobacco product. Cigarette use has declined in recent years, he noted, while use of smokeless tobacco, electronic cigarettes, hookah and similar products have risen considerably in the same period.
“If you look at our three leading causes of death, the leading cause is cancer, followed by heart disease, followed by upper respiratory disease,” Tilden said. “And we all know those are significantly exacerbated by or can be caused by use of tobacco products.”
In advocating for Tobacco 21, Tilden points to research that shows people who haven’t used tobacco by age 21 are unlikely to ever pick up the habit. Nearly nine out of 10 smokers report trying their first cigarette by age 18, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And starting at a young age, the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department notes, makes quitting even more difficult.
“Youth who are younger, ages 15 to 17, we know that they generally get their tobacco products from people aged 18 to 20,” Tilden notes, referring to teenagers who rely on their slightly older friends to purchase tobacco products for them.
Organizations that have signed on to Lawrence’s Tobacco 21 Task Force include Lawrence Public Schools, the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority, the University of Kansas and Lawrence Memorial Hospital.
More than 40 nonprofits, medical professionals’ associations, children’s programs and local businesses have also publicly endorsed the Lawrence Tobacco 21 initiative.
The Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department is encouraging smokers to reach out to their doctors, employers or a quitline coach in order to kick the habit. The Kansas Tobacco Quitline is available 24/7 at www.KSquit.org or by calling 1-800-QUIT-NOW (784-8669).
The University of Kansas announced in 2016 that its campus would go completely tobacco-free beginning in fall 2018.