Maryland could become the next state to raise its smoking age to 21 as new data shows tobacco use among teens is on the rise.
The Centers for Disease Control reported Monday that a long decline in youth cigarette smoking appears to have stalled, and e-cigarettes are to blame.
About 4.9 million middle and high school students used some type of tobacco product in 2018, according to CDC data. That number is up from 3.6 million in 2017.
"You know, the numbers speak for themselves," Maryland Del. Darryl Barnes told News4.
Barnes is the head of the 57-member Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland, which has endorsed a measure to raise the age for buying tobacco and e-cigarettes from 18 to 21.
"I feel confident. But nevertheless it's going to be a heavy lift," Barnes said of the measure. "It's something that we all are rallying behind to say that we want to be one of the seven states to raise tobacco usage to the age of 21."
Currently, six states have passed similar legislation including California, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Oregon, Hawaii and Maine, according to tobacco21.org. Washington, D.C., also limits sales to people 21 and older.
The U.S. Surgeon General calls e-cigarette use, or vaping, an epidemic among young people.
"Going to the bathroom to use these products as well as sneaking it in class, sticking it under a hoodie," said Laura Hale with the American Heart Association.
Hale says research shows that 95 percent of smokers start before they turn 21.
Activists with Tobacco 21 Maryland plan to lobby lawmakers to pass the legislation this year. Hale says the effort is backed by young people who have seen their classmates struggle.
"Their peers are becoming addicted to these products and just can't quit no matter how much they want to," Hale said.
Supporters of the measure say it has failed in years past due to opposition from the tobacco industry and stores that sell cigarettes and vape pens.
Tobacco 21 Maryland activists hope that the CDC's statistics will bolster support for the bill.
In Virginia, the House and Senate have passed similar bills to increase the age to buy or possess products containing tobacco or nicotine to 21. Each chamber is now working on the other’s measure.
In the state that gave birth to the tobacco industry, not everybody is happy about the legislation. William Bechtle, a 20-year-old computer science major at Virginia Commonwealth University, believes it would infringe on people’s rights.
“If an 18-year-old who is legally an adult wants to make the horrible choice to start smoking, they have that right,” said Bechtle, who smokes cigarettes. “If they don’t, then why is the age of adulthood 18 and not 21?”
E-cigarrette company Juul released a statement saying it supports the effort to raise the legal age limit.
“We are committed to preventing youth access of JUUL products, and no young person or non-nicotine user should ever try JUUL. We cannot fulfill our mission to provide the world’s one billion adult smokers with a true alternative to combustible cigarettes if youth use continues unabated," the company said. "We look forward to working with policymakers at the federal, state and local levels to achieve Tobacco 21."