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Cancer Institute Head: Fight Teen Smoking By Raising Legal Age

August 22, 2017

There is absolutely nothing good about tobacco, according to Dr. Peter Yu, head of the Hartford HealthCare Cancer Institute.

“Tobacco is just a bad product," he says, "one that kills people or makes their lives horrific. I find it hard to think of any one substance that can harm your health in so many ways: damaging lungs so that you can’t breathe, causing heart attacks and strokes, magnifying the dangers of diabetes and hypertension and causing many kinds of cancer."

For these reasons, Dr. Yu has called on Connecticut leaders to take significant action to prevent teenage smoking and help smokers who want to quit.

Connecticut, he says, should follow the lead of Maine, which earlier this summer became the fourth state in the country to raise the legal age to buy tobacco products – including hookah and e-cigarettes – to 21.

“Understanding the long-term risks of smoking requires a level of maturity that many teenagers haven’t had the time to develop," he says. "It’s hard to understand that smoking will make a 40-year-old body feel like it's 60 when, at 18, you feel invulnerable. Look at alcohol – society has said there is value in waiting three more years to be able to decide to use it. There’s a lot of personal growth that occurs in three years.”

Hookah and e-cigarettes are more harmful than many think, he adds, with studies showing that a person is then more likely to smoke cigarettes.

“It’s a real concern in the oncology community because it’s a slippery slope," he says. "It makes it more likely that they’ll go on to cigarettes."

Besides raising the minimum age to purchase cigarettes, Dr. Yu calls on Connecticut’s political leaders to restore financial support for tobacco prevention and cessation programs.  With New Jersey, Connecticut was recently dinged by the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network for slashing funding in the 2017 budget. Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the state spend $32 million on such programs, Connecticut reduced its funding from $6 million in 2013 to $1.2 million in 2016 to zero this year.

“The state’s responsibility is to protect the health and well-being of its citizens,” Dr. Yu says. “The cause of half of all chronic illness can be traced to tobacco. The state needs to have its priorities redefined. The problem is that the benefits of preventing or stopping smoking are usually realized two or three decades later. It’s not immediate so it drops on the priority list.

“But the next generation is where the return on investment is. It’s the future of our country that’s at risk.”