Editorial: Time for more towns to join Tobacco 21 movement

Gurnee's decision to become the 18th community in Illinois to raise the minimum age to buy tobacco products comes with an important question - why aren't more towns part of the Tobacco 21 movement?

The push to boost the minimum age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21 has slowly gained momentum since 2014 when Evanston became the first to take this stand, and Chicago and Naperville have since become among its most prominent members.

But the fact so few of the state's nearly 1,300 incorporated municipalities have joined is curious, given there's no shortage of health studies from experts such as the American Lung Association showing that preventing kids from using tobacco before they turn 21 makes them less likely ever to begin the addiction.

Opponents often complain that small businesses will be hurt by the measure, but simply put, communities can't look the other way on this important health issue.

True, there is a bill before the General Assembly that would impose a statewide ban on selling anyone under 21 years old tobacco and related products - including cigars, snuff, chew and nicotine-based products such as e-cigarettes or vaping machines. It's a step five other states have taken. But it's not clear when the Illinois measure could come up for a vote or what will happen when it does.

To date, the effort to raise the minimum age to buy tobacco products from 18 has been centered in Cook and Lake counties.

Elsewhere in the region, Naperville and Bolingbrook are the only ­DuPage County communities on the list, and as of today no towns from Kane, McHenry or Will counties are on board, though published reports indicate Aurora will approve regulations this week, as may downstate Peoria.

The difference may be that the health departments in Cook and Lake counties have been a driving force behind the issue. Representatives of those agencies have made the case for 21-or-over ordinances with public, data-based presentations about the dangers of teenage smoking and the potential benefits of boosting the minimum buying age.

They've provided surveys, education packets for retailers, youth involvement and other strategies. They have enlisted the help of community activists, including high school students who have helped make presentations at village board meetings to persuade trustees to change local tobacco ordinances.

Organizations including the Respiratory Health Association, the American Heart Association and police departments have assisted.

That's a good model, and it provides a lot of experience, knowledge and resources that health departments in the collar counties and elsewhere in the state can tap into to push the importance of Tobacco 21 to their communities.

We understand some community leaders may not want to anger local business and prefer to wait for the state to be the bad guy. But if the state won't act or is slow to act, communities have an obligation to step up and protect our youth.

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