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Upping the fines to fight teenage smoking

Tobacco, somebody once said, is the only product that, when used as directed, kills you. Though smoking rates have declined, more than a 150,000 Americans each year die of lung cancer, nearly all directly killed by smoking.

That doesn’t include the thousands who die of other smoking-related diseases, from heart failure to emphysema.

We also know that with rare exceptions, smokers start the habit -- addiction, really -- while they are legally too young to smoke. Have you ever met anyone in their 30s who spontaneously decides to start?

State Senator Steve Bieda of Warren knows this; like many of us, he has seen relatives die in great agony as a consequence of smoking. Unlike most of us, however, he is in a position to try to do something about it. He’s introduced a bill to double the penalty to anyone selling tobacco to a minor to $100 for the first offense, and $500 for subsequent offenses.

Bieda told me, “I did some checking and found the fine had been $50 since 1988. You can see this as sort of an update to put some teeth in the law and keep pace with inflation.” 

What I don’t know is how strongly the current law is enforced. Recently I was in a convenience store up north and saw two kids, almost certainly younger than 18, buy cigarettes from a clerk who didn’t look any older than they were.

What we do know is that teenage smokers vastly increase their odds of dying a horrible and painful death. Bieda knows the numbers: “Among Michigan’s ninth to twelfth graders, almost 60,000 have reported smoking in the past month, while more than 16,000 have reported smoking cigarettes daily.“

Like most of us, Bieda has seen relatives die from the effects of smoking. One of his uncles used to be a “big smokers’ rights guy,” that is until he got the lung cancer that would kill him. “He told me that they ought to raise the price of cigarettes to a thousand dollars a pack, because nobody should have to suffer they way he did,” Bieda said.

Bieda actually introduced his bill some time ago, but the war in the legislature over Medicaid expansion “sucked all the oxygen in the room.” On Tuesday, his bill finally got a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Bieda is one of only a dozen Democrats in the state senate, and in today‘s partisan atmosphere, it has been difficult for any Democrat to get the leadership to seriously consider any of their bills.

But to his surprise, the committee not only gave the bill a hearing, they approved it unanimously and sent it to the full Senate. Both houses should pass it, immediately.

Most teenagers find it impossible to believe that they might someday be old, let alone coughing their lungs out. That’s why Bieda is going after those who sell tobacco. If the adults know they could be out $500 bucks for each offense, minors might find it much harder to buy cigarettes. And in a world where we are struggling to afford the costs of basic health care, that would be fine with me.