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Shaw: It's a good call to raise the smoking age to 21

City councils in Detroit Lakes, Frazee and Perham, Minn., are being urged to raise the smoking age to 21. I say...

--Go for it. For that matter, raise the smoking age in all of Minnesota and North Dakota to 21, to match the drinking age. It's about time. The idea is gaining momentum around the country, and for good reason. It saves lives. Five states have raised their smoking ages to 21, along with more than 250 cities and counties. It's working there and it can work here.

Here's a staggering fact: More than half a million Americans die every year from cigarette smoking. These are brutal, gut wrenching and preventable deaths. Many of us have had to witness friends or relatives dying from smoking and it's painful to watch. More Americans die from cigarette smoking every year than from the combined number of car crashes, drug overdoses and murders. Not to be overlooked are the 54,000 Americans who die every year from secondhand smoke.

If we can prevent young people from smoking, there's a good chance they won't smoke at all later in life. The Institute of Medicine, now called the National Academy of Medicine, found that 90 percent of daily smokers started lighting up before age 19. The Institute found that raising the smoking age could prevent 223,000 premature deaths a year in the U.S. In Needham, Mass., where the smoking age was raised to 21 in 2005, the smoking rate dropped by more than half among high school students.

Some say people in the military who are 18 should be able to smoke. I can't figure out what one thing has to do with the other. While I'm extremely grateful to those who voluntarily join our armed forces, we should not be rewarding them with a head start towards coming down with lung cancer.

Frankly, I don't expect the North Dakota Legislature to pass such a law, but I believe it would pass if put on a statewide ballot. After the Legislature did nothing, North Dakota voters in 2008 approved a measure to develop and fund tobacco prevention, and in 2012 overwhelmingly approved a measure to ban smoking in public places and worksites. The Legislature is more concerned with keeping our speeding fines the lowest in the nation, and making sure untrained state residents can carry concealed weapons.

I've never met anyone who regretted not smoking, but I've met several people who regretted starting. For many of them those regrets came too late. They were constantly coughing and having trouble breathing, while heading to early deaths. It's not often legislators and city council members have a real chance to save and extend lives. What could be more important? It's time to seize the opportunity and raise the smoking age.

--I have been slow in addressing this issue, because I always make sure I have my facts straight before commenting.

Shaw is a former WDAY TV reporter and former KVRR TV new director. He can be heard Fridays, 11 a.m. to noon, on WDAY AM radio. Email