Richard Barker puffed his first cigarette as a teenager.
The Jacksonville resident stuck with the habit for more than 30 years before finally quitting in 2016 when his health began declining. Barker, 55, has felt much better ever since.
He still wouldn’t mind having a smoke.
“Quitting was the hardest thing I’ve ever done ... I could smoke one right now,” Barker said. “I still haven’t gotten over it yet.”
An Alabama lawmaker recently introduced a bill that, if passed, would raise the minimum age to 21 from 19 years old to buy or use tobacco in the state. Some health experts say, and research shows, a significant portion of tobacco users start when they’re teenagers. Raising the minimum age would help reduce the number of new tobacco users and many of the health problems plaguing the state, experts say.
The bill, filed by Rep. Chris Pringle, R-Mobile, would make it unlawful for anyone younger than 21 to purchase, use, possess or transport tobacco, tobacco products or alternative nicotine products in the state.
An attempt to reach Pringle for comment Tuesday was unsuccessful.
According to the nonprofit Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation, created in 1996, as of February 2017 there were 16 states and 220 cities with laws prohibiting the sale of tobacco products to anyone younger than 21.
Dr. Susan Walley, an associate professor of pediatrics with the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Children’s of Alabama, said she’s a proponent of raising the minimum tobacco use age.
“Most smokers start smoking by the age of 25 ... if they’re 26, their chances of starting are almost zero,” Walley said. “We want to protect young adults from addiction that shortens their lives.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2015 35.5 percent of Alabama high school students reported using tobacco products. Also, 14 percent of Alabama high school students reported they were currently smoking cigarettes.
Barker said he started smoking to look cool.
“That’s just what all the cool kids were doing at that time,” Barker said.
Ashley Lyerly, director of public policy for the American Lung Association in Alabama, said her organization supports raising the minimum tobacco use age.
“Increasing the minimum age of sales will significantly reduce the use of tobacco,” Lyerly said.
A report the Institute of Medicine published in 2015 estimates increasing the minimum age to 21 in the U.S. would reduce the adult smoking rate 12 percent and the youth smoking rate by 25 percent. Also, there would be 16,000 fewer cases of preterm birth and 220,000 fewer deaths annually, the report states.
“I think this policy change would really have an impact on the rate of tobacco use and have a significant public health benefit,” Lyerly said.
Tobacco is currently the leading cause of preventable deaths and disease in the U.S. and in Alabama, the CDC states. Also, Alabama has the 11th highest smoking rate in the nation.
“Smokers are much more likely to develop cancer,” Walley said. “There are 13 types of cancers tobacco and smoking causes and other health effects like emphysema and cardiovascular disease.”
Linda Fudge, a 70-year-old retired civil service worker who lives a mile south of Jacksonville, said she’s felt much better since quitting smoking in 2008 after 44 years of using cigarettes.
“My lungs have cleared up and there’s less coughing,” Fudge said. “The big difference is I can smell things and taste things better.”
Fudge said she started using cigarettes when she was 17 years old after being around her parents who smoked. In fact, many of her relatives smoked.
“About half my family passed away from emphysema,” Fudge said.
Fudge said she wasn’t convinced that raising the minimum tobacco use age would have much impact.
“I think it’ll be like drinking ... they’ll find a way,” Fudge said, referring to teenagers.
Brian Young, whose family owns 10 Grub Mart convenience stores across the state, including those in Calhoun County, said raising the minimum tobacco use age might reduce cigarette sales at his stores, but not by much.
“Cigarette sales are becoming less and less every day anyway,” Young said. “And in some ways, it could be helpful if we only had one age to look at when checking IDs ... that would make things simpler.”
Barker said he also didn’t think changing the age would help much and felt it was unnecessary.
“At 18 years of age, you can sign up for service to get killed fighting for our country,” Barker said. “If you can be old enough to fight you should be old enough to smoke ... that’s a conscious decision.”
Still, Barker said that if he could live his life over, he wouldn’t have started smoking. And he’s always warned his children against the habit.
“I told my kids that if they were ever caught smoking, I’d break their arms,” Barker said with a laugh. “None of them are smokers now.”