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Vermont House Set To Debate Bill To Raise State's Smoking Age To 21

A new bill would incrementally raise the legal smoking age over three years. Only two other states, Hawaii and California, have raised the age to 21.
A new bill would incrementally raise the legal smoking age over three years. Only two other states, Hawaii and California, have raised the age to 21.

This week the House is scheduled to debate a bill raising the legal age to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21. Backers of the legislation say it is one of the most important public health issues of the session.

While dozens of cities across the country have increased the legal age for buying tobacco products to 21, only two states have done so: Hawaii and California.

The proposed legislation at the Statehouse achieves this goal over a three-year period. Next year, the legal age would be 19, in 2018 it would be 20, and in 2019, the age would be 21.

Tina Zuk, the government relations director at the American Heart Association, says raising the age limit to 21 will have a significant impact on adult smoking rates.

"One of the things that really makes sense in terms of raising the age to 21 is that 90 percent of adults who smoke all started before the age of 21 and then half of them become regular smokers by their 19th birthday," says Zuk. "So if we can do something ... then we have so much better a chance from getting smokers who are hooked for life."

Jim Harrison is the executive director of the Vermont Retail and Grocers Association. He says there a lot of problems with the phased-in approach.

"Increasing it a year at a time potentially creates a lot of confusion," says Harrison, "not only among the public but also among store clerks who have an important responsibility and job with trying to card people and make sure that the folks that are buying tobacco products are the proper age."

Zuk says she understands Harrison's concerns. That's why she supports efforts to do away with the phased-in approach and implement the 21-year-old age limit in one step.

"So that anybody who was born before Sept. 1, 1998, would be grandfathered [in]," says Zuk, "but then the 21 still would be implemented right away next year."

The legislation also raises the state cigarette tax.

Currently, it's $3.08 a pack. Under this bill, it would increase by 39 cents over the three-year period. Harrison says the higher tax rate will exacerbate the loss of retail sales along the Vermont—New Hampshire border.

"How many times are we going to shoot ourselves in the foot by sending retail business out of state?" Harrison says. "We have it with the sales tax ... let's not keep adding other taxes that drive traffic and send them to New Hampshire."

Harrison notes that the fine for an underage person caught buying tobacco products is $25. He says lawmakers should considering raising the fine if they are serious about discouraging illegal tobacco sales.

Copyright 2016 Vermont Public Radio