A bill that was before the Vermont House to raise the smoking age was sent back to committee Tuesday for fiscal review.
The House bill would prohibit people 18 to 21 from purchasing and smoking tobacco products. If passed, the law would be phased in over the next three years. The smoking age would go from 18 to 19 in January and increase by one year of age for each of the following two years.
Vermont Cancer Action Network Government Relations and Advocacy Director Jill Sudhoff-Guerin says the measure addresses data showing that 90 percent of adults who smoke started before the age of 21. “And half of them became regular smokers by their 19th birthday. We also know that 29 percent of smokers under 18 had someone else buy them cigarettes. So the 15 year olds or the 12 year olds or the 13 year olds they know the 18 year olds, whereas an 18 year old you know they’re not going to have the same relationship with older Vermonters. The Coalition for a Tobacco Free Vermont and ACS-CAN (American Cancer Society/Cancer Action Network) would rather see it go directly to 21 because it would have that impact of not having the underage youth be able to have the 18 year olds purchase for them.”
Opponents of the bill note that 18 is the legal age for most adult related activity and therefore should also be the legal smoking age.
Republican Representative Paul Dame is a member of the House Committee on Human Services. That committee moved the bill to the House floor after a 7 to 4 vote late last week. Dame says the legal age question is his primary concern. “Who is an adult and who do we trust to make decisions for themselves? If you’re 18 you can get married and you take on debt in your own name. You can do a lot of things. And for me that was the primary factor in deciding whether or not we should allow 18 year olds to decide whether or not they want to smoke. Another concern I had was once you make something illegal you kind of put it off limits. That’s exactly what teenagers want to go after. And so by raising that age there’s sort of this allure of the forbidden. And I think it sends a conflicting message that I’m not sure is going to help us change the image of what smoking really needs to be.”
Action on the bill was postponed and it was sent to the Ways and Means Committee for review. Sudhoff-Guerin calls the move a delay tactic. “We heard that it was actually a Republican member of the Human Services committee who was the committee that passed this out of their committee last week. So one of the committee members who did not support the bill had a question about the revenue loss. And every year in Vermont we pass a balanced budget. So it’s a careful science and so there was a fiscal note prepared by the Joint Fiscal Committee.”
Representative Dame says the graduated change in smoking age will have an impact on state revenues and the Ways and Means committee should review the proposal. “Because we’re making it illegal for certain people to buy a certain product it’s going to affect state sales tax and it’s also going to affect very significantly tobacco revenue. So we have to just understand the fiscal impact of that and I think the Ways and Means Committee is an appropriate place to go. One of the problems that we’ll have with reducing tobacco revenue is that we use that revenue to draw down federal funds with our Medicaid match. So it’s a decision that is going to present some potential tough choices.”
The bill was being reviewed by the House Ways and Means Committee Wednesday.
The bill also failed to meet the crossover deadline, so its fate in the Senate is uncertain.