Jack Kramer / ctnewsjunkie photo
Roger Levesque of Newington (Jack Kramer / ctnewsjunkie photo)

HARTFORD, CT — A bill that will increase from 18 to 21 the minimum age to purchase tobacco products and e-cigarettes received a strong lobbying push from supporters at the state Capitol Wednesday.

Over 100 advocates from across Connecticut — including cancer survivors, lawmakers, medical professionals, local youth and their families — held a press conference to rally support for the legislation’s passage as part of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN) and American Heart Association (AHA) annual lobby day.

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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The bill passed, by a 20-1 vote, out of the Public Health Committee and is now awaiting action from the House.

The feeling of optimism Wednesday that Connecticut was ready to join other states was impossible to miss.

“This is the year to raise the age of tobacco products to 21,” Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said to a cheering crowd.

Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, had a similar message, telling proponents: “You have wide, bipartisan support for this bill.”

He encouraged the advocates to work the halls of the legislature on Wednesday to lobby for the bill, telling them he’s certain a few weeks down the road that “we’ll celebrate when the governor signs this bill.”

When and if the state passes legislation raising the age, it will be catching up with a number of Connecticut towns — including Hartford, Bridgeport, South Windsor, Southington, Wallingford, Trumbull, and Milford — that have already passed legislation on their own.

“Roughly 95 percent of adult smokers begin smoking before they turn 21,” Bryte Johnson, director of government relations for ACS CAN, said. “We can save countless lives and healthcare dollars if we tackle this problem by increasing the legal sale age of all tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes, across Connecticut.”

One recently released report has given advocates added momentum — a Department of Public Health 2017 Youth Tobacco Survey indicates e-cigarette use has more than doubled by Connecticut high school students from 7.2 percent use in 2015 to 14.7 percent use in 2017.

“Electronic cigarette use is creating a new generation of Connecticut children who will suffer from a deadly, lifelong addiction to nicotine and tobacco products,” Johnson said. “An increase in the legal sale age of tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes, can be a critical component of a comprehensive approach tobacco control, and a powerful tool in the fight against cancer.”

Gov. Ned Lamont proposed raising the age as part of his two-year budget. He estimates Connecticut will lose $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.

Two of those speaking at Wednesday’s press conference were Roger Levesque, a nearly three-decade smoker until he quit after his father-in-law, a smoker, died from lung cancer, and Levesque’s 16-year-old daughter, Evelyn.

“Gary was a smoker, it’s probably what brought on the lung cancer,” Roger Levesque, of Newington, said. “I was hooked for 28 years until losing Gary scared me to quit.” Now, Roger Levesque said, he worries about his 14-year-old son who is about to start high school and the peer pressure he will face from others to smoke.

Referring to her father kicking the habit, Evelyn Levesque told the crowd: “Thank God my dad quit or today’s speech may have been about him.”

Although she isn’t a smoker, Donna Rogers of Higganum is a breast cancer survivor who said she was at the press conference “because this is such a preventable cancer.”

She said her husband smoked for 50 years before he kicked the habit.

One of the few arguing against the bill during the public hearing phase was Jake Butcher, state affairs manager of Vaper Technology Association, a national trade association representing manufacturers, wholesalers, distributors, small business owners, and entrepreneurs who have developed innovative and quality vapor products.

Butcher, in written testimony, argued raising the age to 21 for vaping “will only increase teen smoking rates.”

“This is due to the fact that where there are not alternatives to combustible cigarettes, youth continue to experiment with and get addicted to combustible cigarettes,” Butcher said.

He also said that “any ban or limitation on access to vapor products directly jeopardizes the businesses that Connecticut taxpayers have built and are still building, not to mention the consumers who are reliant upon vapor products as an alternative to combustible cigarettes.”