The Vermont House gave final approval Wednesday to a bill that would raise the legal age to purchase and use tobacco products in the state to 21.
The bill would raise the legal age to use or buy cigarettes, electronic cigarettes and other tobacco products from 18 to 21. The so-called Tobacco 21 bill was passed after two amendments were offered but failed. Progressive Brian Cina of Burlington attempted to place an exemption on the ceremonial use of tobacco. “The amendment to S.86 would allow people of any age to possess tobacco products or paraphernalia in connection with participation in a bona fide religious, spiritual or ceremonial activity.”
House Speaker Mitzi Johnson: “Member from Westford.”
Republican Robert Bancroft: “Would it be possible for an 18 year old to sit on the steps of the Statehouse here and smoke a cigarette and claim it’s a ceremony?”
That amendment was withdrawn before a vote was taken. A second amendment allowing exemptions for military personnel failed with 33 yeas and 109 nays. The bill itself then quickly passed on a voice vote.
House Speaker Mitzi Johnson: “All those in favor please signify by saying aye.”
Johnson: “Those opposed nay.”
Speaker Johnson: “The ayes appear to have it.”
Health advocates say S.86 is a prevention rather than a cessation tool.
American Heart Association Government Relations Director Tina Zuk says the goal is to stop any social sources that underage youth use to obtain tobacco and e-cigarettes. “Many kids in high school know an 18-year-old but they don’t know a 21-year-old. So raising it a few years stops the sources for kids especially the 15-to-17-year-old crowd from getting either tobacco or Juuls.”
American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network Government Relations Director Jennifer Costa says the bill will not impact adult smokers. “The goal here really is to curb the youth appeal of e-cigarettes and then ultimate transition to traditional tobacco. So for us this is all about addressing social sources. Eighteen year olds can legally buy cigarettes and other tobacco products and bring them into school and, although it may be against the school policy, they’re distributing them to their friends albeit giving them or selling it. This would reduce that social source availability.”
A similar bill offered in 2017 failed. Costa says there has been a major societal change since then. “This session is markedly different from the last time that Vermont lawmakers tried to pass Tobacco 21 initiative back in 2017 and I think the big difference is the absolute explosion in popularity of e-cigarettes. We didn’t have that big boom in popularity back in 2017. It was just kind of becoming a thing. So I think for lawmakers the explosion of e-cigarettes and Juul was really kind of a game changer for them. We were able to talk to a lot more lawmakers who were against this back in 2017 who have changed their minds mainly because of the e-cigarette use.”
Again Tina Zuk: “The amount of high school students the increase last year and the use of e-cigarettes was a 78 percent increase. And it may be more scary than that even is that there was a 48 percent increase in use of these devices by middle school students. And we’ve heard that 18-year-olds are selling Juuls on school busses to 11-year-old kids. It’s a real big problem that we’re thrilled Vermont has decided to really tackle head on.”
Vermont Republican Governor Phil Scott has indicated he will sign the bill.
Audio from the Vermont House is courtesy of the live Statehouse webstream provided by Vermont Public Radio.