ctnewsjunkie file photo

HARTFORD, CT — It would cost the state millions of dollars to do so, but public health advocates are once again pushing legislation that would raise the legal age for the purchase and use of tobacco products from 18 to 21.

A similar effort was tried, but failed, in last year’s legislature. During debate over the bill last year, it was estimated raising the age would result in a $43 million revenue loss for the state.

This year’s bill has been introduced by Rep. Prasad Srinivasan, R-Glastonbury, and was the subject of a public hearing of the Public Health Committee at the Legislative Office Building Friday.

Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services Commissioner Miriam Delphin-Rittmon said her department “supports the concept of this bill while acknowledging that it must be considered in the largest context of state budget as its passage would create revenue loss for the state.”

Delphin-Rittmon said raising the age of legal tobacco use “would help prevent addiction to tobacco products. It would also reduce the 4,900 annual deaths in Connecticut attributed to smoking and the 450 annual deaths of people who died from second-hand smoke.”

While that’s good from a public health perspective, it’s bad when it means a loss of tobacco tax revenue.   

“We are a public health committee here, so are goal is to review what the public health impacts and obviously the other committees, and I sit on one of them, their job, their responsibility is to look at them from the budgeting point of view,” Srinivasan said.

“But from a public health policy point of view, which is the focus of this morning is, if I’m hearing you right you are in agreement with the fact that raising the age to 21 is the right thing for us to do as public health policy,” Srinivasan asked Delphin-Rittmon.

She answered: “Yes, you raise a good point — we do support that concept and policy that raising the age will help to minimize health conditions for younger folks and potentially long term impacts of smoking, particularly when you start young.”

Delphin-Rittmon said if the age was raised, she would recommend that any tobacco products, including chewing tobacco, e-cigarettes that have tobacco components, be included.

Also testifying in favor of the bill, but also pointing out the potential impact on revenues, was Department of Public Health Commissioner Raul Pino.

“The Department of Public Health supports the concept of raising the legal age for purchase and use of tobacco products, but also recognizes the enactment would result in a significant revenue loss,” Pino said.

“Due to this fiscal impact, the passage of this bill would need to be considered in the larger context of the state’s budget and fiscal situation,” Pino added.

Nevertheless, “Due to nicotine addiction, three out of four adolescent smokers continue to use into adulthood even though they planned on quitting a few years after starting to smoke,” Pino said.

“Adolescent brains are particularly vulnerable to nicotine and nicotine addiction. An earlier age of initiation is associated with greater levels of nicotine dependence and a greater intensity and persistence to continue to use tobacco into adulthood,” he added.

Srinivasan said one of his concerns is that if the age is raised to 21 the should state do a better job than it currently does of spending funds that are supposed to be directed on tobacco cessation efforts on those efforts, instead of having funds funneled into the state’s general fund to help combat the current $1.6 billion deficit.

A report released late last year: “Broken Promises to Our Children: A State-by-State Look at the 1998 State Tobacco Settlement 18 Years Later,” showed that Connecticut is tied for last in the nation when it comes to funding programs to prevent kids from smoking and helping smokers quit.

Delphin-Rittmon said while overall tobacco use, in the state, like most states, has declined, the use of tobacco products has spiked up in recent years in Connecticut. She said spending more money on tobacco prevention efforts would certainly be beneficial in combating that increase.

Connecticut collected $519.7 million in revenue last year from the 1998 state tobacco settlement and tobacco taxes, but spent none of it on tobacco prevention programs.

That’s according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, American Heart Association, American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, American Lung Association, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights and Truth Initiative.

Connecticut and New Jersey are the only two states that have not budgeted state funds this year for tobacco prevention and cessation programs, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

It’s recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that Connecticut spend $32 million on tobacco prevention programs.

But the state has a history of underfunding tobacco-prevention programs. Funding dropped to $6 million in fiscal year 2013 to $1.2 million in fiscal 2016 and to zero in fiscal 2017.

As part of his budget, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has called for a 45 cent increase in the taxes on a pack of cigarettes from $3.90 to $4.35.