I first became aware of MD Anderson when my dear friend, James Ragan, of blessed memory, was diagnosed with osteosarcoma at the age of 13. James and his family lived two doors down from us in Corpus Christi, and I watched them battle osteosarcoma with a bravery and optimism that is simply indescribable. Through James and his parents, I began to learn of the extraordinarily impactful research and clinical care provided at MD Anderson. I also became much more sensitive to the plight of young cancer patients.
Then, my father-in-law, George Gilbert, fought melanoma for several years with the help of MD Anderson. We were very close, and I admired him a great deal. His cancer ultimately got the best of him, but I know that MD Anderson made every weapon available to him during his courageous battle, and they brought a level of patient-centered care and compassion for which I will forever be grateful.
After joining the Board of Visitors, my business partner of 25 years, Chip Bonner, was diagnosed with glioblastoma and once again, MD Anderson provided incredible care throughout Chip’s journey, and my appreciation will be there for the rest of my life.
Learning about the dangers of tobacco
After seeing cancer claim several of my loved ones, I’ve committed myself to helping MD Anderson advance its mission to end cancer as a member of its Board of Visitors. This is how I learned of the incredible potential of cancer prevention to make a difference – particularly avoiding tobacco use.
Through my conversations with MD Anderson’s leaders, I learned that there wasn’t a single action that would reduce cancer risk as much as lowering tobacco use.
This was eye-opening for me. For 28 years, I built a convenience store operation known as Stripes that operated nearly 700 convenience stores across several states. Our operation was the number one retailer of cigarettes in the state of Texas. I knew how harmful the product was and it put users at risk of several types of cancer and a variety of other diseases. As a parent, I never wanted my own children to smoke, and I struggled to explain to them why it was necessary that I sell them in our stores.
Still, at that time, I felt I had a responsibility to my shareholders and employees to offer lawfully permitted products to our customers. This was a necessary evil, in my eyes, in order to support more than 12,000 Stripes team members as well as the millions of dollars we gave back to schools, colleges and hospitals across the state.
My commitment to protecting kids from tobacco’s harms
We sold the business in 2014, and I’ve devoted a great portion of my time to civic matters. Knowing the devastating impacts tobacco can have on the health of our young people, I became interested in how public policy can work to protect them. In recent years, legislators in Texas have proposed raising the sale age of tobacco in Texas to 21.
This has become even more important recently, with the tremendous rise in the use of e-cigarettes by young people. These products, marketed with a variety of flavors, are being used by millions of teens across the country.
My youngest child, age 16, has a group of wonderful friends, with supportive and engaged parents. It’s unimaginable to me that these kids would smoke cigarettes, but I know that many of them use e-cigarettes. It’s a disturbing truth: this epidemic is hooking kids all over, and we must work to protect them from nicotine addiction. Raising the sale age of tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, would go a long way to keep these products out of the hands of students in middle and high school.
Tobacco 21 will save lives
I’ve become passionate about raising the sale age for tobacco products to 21, and have worked closely with MD Anderson to educate state legislators on the importance of this public health issue.
As a former owner of convenience stores, I’m aware of the business concerns. However, as someone who has lost loved ones to cancer, I’m committed to doing my part to eliminate cancer. As a parent, I strive to do what I can to protect my children and their friends from ever facing a cancer diagnosis. Therefore, I’m proud to see Texas take a big step forward in promoting public health and preventing cancer by passing its Tobacco 21 legislation, and I look forward to it soon becoming law.
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