DeZet via shutterstock
An electronic cigarette (DeZet via shutterstock)

HARTFORD, CT — A bill that would prohibit the sale of cigarettes, tobacco products, electronic nicotine delivery systems, and vapor products to persons under the age of 21 received strong support during a public hearing Monday.

If Connecticut passed the bill it would join a number of cities, including New York City, Chicago, Cleveland, Albany, and two cities in Kansas, as well as in the states of Massachusetts, California, Hawaii, Maine, New Jersey, and Oregon in raising the age from 18 to 21 for the purchase of tobacco and vaping products.

CLICK TO VOTE ON 2019 HB 7200: An Act Prohibiting The Sale Of Cigarettes, Tobacco Products, Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems And Vapor Products To Persons Under Age Twenty One.

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In Connecticut several municipalities are ahead of the state on taking the initiative of raising the age to 21 for tobacco products — including the cities of Hartford and Bridgeport — which have enacted such laws in the past few months.

Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, said that raising the age for tobacco and vaping “is perhaps one of the more important bills in front of this committee and the legislature this session.”

Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services Commissioner Miriam Delphin-Rittmon supports the legislation.

“The use of Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems (ENDS) and vapor products has increased significantly over the past few years,” Delphin-Rittmon said in written testimony. “The Department of Public Health 2017 Youth Tobacco Survey indicates ENDS use has more than doubled by Connecticut high school students from 7.2 percent use in 2015 to 14.7 percent use in 2017.”

Delphin-Rittmon added: “Studies show nicotine has a detrimental effect the adolescent brain altering normal development that will impact that person for the rest of his or her life. Ninety percent of adult smokers started smoking before the age of 18 years old.

During Monday’s public hearings Rep. Mary Mushinksy, D-Wallingford, and professionals who work with teenage children in Wallingford, urged the committee to get behind the bill.

“Frankly I’d prefer the age be raised to 25, which is end of brain development time period,” Mushinsky told the committee. “But any age raising,” Mushinsky said, would be a positive step forward.

Ken Welch, co-founder of the Coalition for a Better Wallingford, said the committee needed to take strong action — stating that vaping in schools had reached epidemic proportions and school officials are at a loss in trying to control it.

Welch said the Wallingford group he founded, after his step-daughter died from a drug overdose in 2012, works with town departments, police, and school officials on the issues of substance abuse by young people.

He told the committee that the state needs to send a message to try and help towns and schools curtail the vaping by young people.

“They (school officials) are changing dress codes, they are putting monitors in bathrooms, they are shutting down bathrooms,” Welch said. “This is out of control.”

Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, wondered even if the legislature raised the age whether that action in and of itself would be enough to stem the vaping epidemic.

“They are using it right in the classroom, it is that discreet,” Candelora said, adding that many of the teens vaping in schools are as young as 14 years old.

The Wallingford officials agreed with Candelora but also suggested that one strategy that could help would be to include a tax hike on all vaping products to discourage use.

Rep. Lezlye Zupkus, R-Prospect, said she understood and didn’t disagree with the idea of legislating against those under 21 from being able to smoke, but found it a little difficult to square that with the fact that young people under the age of 21 could be prohibited from smoking but could still enlist in the armed forces and be sent to a foreign country to fight — and smoke while they’re doing that.

“We send kids over to all these countries and they are able to smoke,” she said. “With the situations they find themselves in, it’s probably a stress reliever.” Then, Zupkus said, they come back to Connecticut and if this law is passed and they are under the age of 21 they wouldn’t be able to smoke.

Also testifying in favor of the initiative was Consumer Protection Commissioner Michelle Seagull. Seagull warned that if the bill’s language remained as written — that her department would be in charge of enforcing the legislation — and that it would take more resources.

“There are currently 33 manufacturer registrations and 1,196 dealer registrations in Connecticut,” Seagull testified. “Because HB 7200 would vastly expand our regulatory scope with regard to these entities, we would need additional administrative, investigatory, and legal staff as well as other resources to implement this proposal.”

Gov. Ned Lamont proposed raising the age as part of his two-year budget. It will cost Connecticut $5.8 million in revenue in the first year and $5.5 million in the second year of the budget.

Secondly, Lamont is also proposing a 75 percent wholesale tax on electronic cigarette liquids.