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A boost for tobacco age change?

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Walmart is a favorite target for critics who don’t like its pay practices, or its business model, or its impact on small-town commerce — you name it. Its decision to revamp its tobacco sales may not win Walmart many converts, but it merits a nod nonetheless.

Walmart says that beginning July 1, it (and its Sam’s Club stores) will sell tobacco products only to those 21 years and older. It also will stop selling fruit- and desert-flavored nicotine products. Cashiers who don’t follow the policies will be disciplined and could be fired.

In a letter to the Food and Drug Administration, Walmart’s ethics and compliance officer noted that “even a single sale of a tobacco product to a minor is one too many, and we take seriously our responsibilities in this regard.”

This move by the nation’s largest retailer could provide momentum for efforts to raise the nationwide smoking age to 21 from 18. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said recently he plans to introduce a bill to do that. (E-cigarette giant Juul also is pushing for the move to 21.)

A dozen states have already taken that step, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. The list includes neighboring Arkansas, where Walmart is based. In addition, more than 450 municipalities have raised their smoking age to 21, including Chicago, San Antonio and Minneapolis.

Health concerns, particularly related to youth, are at the heart of these moves.

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids says the ages of 18 to 21 are “a critical period when many smokers move from experimental smoking to regular, daily use.” Also, the organization says, research shows youth often rely on older friends and classmates to buy their tobacco. Raising the age to 21 would make it more difficult for high school students to legally buy smokes for younger friends.

A 2015 report by what is now called the National Academy of Medicine said 15- to 17-year-olds would be the age group most impacted by raising the minimum age of legal access to tobacco. It estimated that bumping the age limit to 21 would generate a 12 percent decrease in the prevalence of tobacco use among today’s teens by the time they’re adults.

It also would result in an estimated 223,000 fewer premature deaths and 50,000 fewer deaths from lung cancer for those born between 2000 and 2019, the academy’s researchers said.

Oklahoma’s Legislature approved a tobacco tax increase last year that should deter use and lead some smokers to drop the habit. However, Oklahoma still has a “pre-emption” law that keeps municipalities from enacting restrictions on smoking that are greater than those found in state law. This needs to change.

And, efforts to raise the tobacco purchase age to 21 have gone nowhere. Perhaps this notable reset by Walmart, which has a considerable presence in communities across Oklahoma, will provide lawmakers with a reason to change course.

The Oklahoman Editorial Board

The Oklahoman Editorial Board consists of Kelly Dyer Fry, Publisher, Editor and Vice President of News; Owen Canfield, Opinion Editor; and Ray Carter, Chief Editorial Writer.. To submit a letter to the editor, go to this page or email... Read more ›

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