Wilton legislators aim to raise smoking age to 21

After passing both the state House and Senate, a bill awaits the governor’s signature that would raise the smoking age, or age that someone can purchase tobacco products, from 18 to 21.

The bill was co-sponsored by 53 senators and representatives including Wilton legislators Gail Lavielle (R-143) and Will Haskell (D-26), and is part of a push to counteract the rise of smoking among young people, especially the prevalence of tobacco vaporizers or “vapes” among middle and high school students.

The House approved the proposal by a 124-22 vote, the Senate voted 33-3 in favor of the bill, with three Republicans dissenting. Rep. Tom O’Dea (R-125) was among those who voted in favor of the bill, which Gov. Ned Lamont is expected to sign.

Lavielle said she co-sponsored this bill in the past, but this year there was bipartisan support for its passage.

“I think a lot of people start smoking when they are young and if they don’t start then there is a good chance they will never start, so I think there is logic to this. Vaping is very attractive to young people and if they have started on vaping, instead of helping them stop smoking, it will help them start,” she said.

Haskell agreed. “The lifelong consequences of smoking tobacco clearly damage public health, and we need to use every tool in our toolbox to prevent youth from falling into this deadly habit. With 95 percent of adult smokers starting before they turn 21, this reform is long overdue.”

House Bill No. 7200, commonly referred to as “Tobacco 21,” raises the legal purchase age of cigarettes, e-cigarettes, vaping products and other tobacco products from 18 to 21, effective on Oct. 1.
In addition to raising the age, the bill increases penalties for tobacco sales for individuals under the age of 21 and bans smoking and e-cigarette use on school and childcare center grounds, among other changes to current laws.

Businesses found to sell tobacco products to underage patrons would see fines increased from $200 to $300 for first offenses, from $350 to $750 for second offenses, and from $500 to $1,000 for further offenses. In addition, they would face a possible revocation of their license to sell tobacco products.

This bill comes as data show a rise in youth tobacco use, specifically of vaping products. In 2018, more than 3.6 million youth across the United States — including 20 percent of high school students and five percent of middle school students — reported using e-cigarettes, according to the U.S. surgeon general. These products are often sold under the alluring guise of “fruity” flavors, and the chemicals used in those flavors pose additional health risks. The Centers for Disease Control confirmed in 2016 that vaping leads to nicotine addiction and simulated smoking behavior that derails a young person’s life.

The bill also closes a significant loophole that will prevent youth access to tobacco products, as it requires online e-cigarette sellers to obtain the signature of someone 21 or older when delivering a package. This prevents underage shoppers from obtaining smoking products without having to show identification.

The passage of the Tobacco 21 by the House and Senate drew praise from the American Lung Association. “With our nation facing a youth e-cigarette epidemic, Tobacco 21 laws are now more important than ever... We already know that adolescents and young adults are uniquely vulnerable to the effects of nicotine and nicotine addiction, making this legislation an important, lifesaving measure,” said American Lung Association President and CEO Harold Wimmer.

The new bill was introduced this session, following a December 2018 announcement by the U.S. surgeon general calling youth e-cigarette use an epidemic. According to the announcement, e-cigarette use increased by a staggering 78 percent among high school students from 2017 to 2018.

Its approval would make Connecticut the 12th state, in addition to the District of Columbia, to raise the age of access to 21.