Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie photo
Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie photo)

HARTFORD, CT — A bill that will increase the minimum age to purchase tobacco products and e-cigarettes from 18 to 21 statewide passed the House by a 124-to-22 vote Thursday.

The bill now heads to the Senate.

CLICK TO VOTE ON 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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A number of Connecticut cities and towns — including Hartford, Bridgeport, South Windsor, Southington, Wallingford, Trumbull, and Milford — have already passed their own ordinances to raise the age.

“This is one of the more important bills we will consider this year,” Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, co-chair of Public Health Committee, said. “The (U.S) Surgeon General has determined that vaping is a national epidemic.”

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

Steinberg said the vaping epidemic is having an “impact on our schools. We raid bathrooms to catch illegal vaping, installing detectors.” The vaping that goes on in schools, Steinberg said, is “distracting schools from their core mission, which is to educate young people.”

The bill was amended from its original version to exclude a proposed ban on flavored vaping. Steinberg said that decision was made because of an expectation of federal action. If not, Steinberg said the Public Health Committee would take up the issue again next year.

Rep. Matt Blumenthal, D-Stamford, told his colleagues that he felt a “small bit of disappointment that we aren’t going after the (vaping) flavors.” But he quickly added that he was glad to hear that the state will take on the issue next year if the federal government doesn’t act.

Rep. Nicole Klarides-Ditria, R-Derby, asked Steinberg if funds raised in the bill meant to be spent on tobacco cessation programs “will be safe from raiding from the General Assembly.”

Steinberg answered: “It is certainly our intent; we will make every effort that we do not succumb to temptation (to raid the fund). I cannot guarantee that,” Steinberg added.

Connecticut is one of the few states in the entire country that currently spends zero money taken in from the cigarette tax on tobacco cessation programs. It has continually received “F” grades from the American Cancer Society for that practice.

Gov. Ned Lamont proposed raising the age as part of his first two-year budget and says he will sign the bill if it passes the Senate.

The bill raises, from 18 to 21, the legal age to purchase cigarettes, other tobacco products, and e-cigarettes (i.e., electronic nicotine delivery systems and vapor products). The bill imposes a $300 fine on a retailer who sells a tobacco product to anyone under age 21; increases the annual license fee for cigarette dealers from $50 to $200; and increases from $400 to $800 the annual registration fee for e-cigarette dealers.

The state expects to lose $4.9 million next year and $6.3 million in 2021 as a result of the legislation. The bill raises fees and fines, which are anticipated to increase state revenues by $1.2 million and will offset additional regulatory costs incurred by the state departments of Revenue Services and Consumer Protection.

Lamont praised the House for passing the bill.

“With the rising use of e-cigarettes and vaping products among young people, we are seeing a growing public health crisis,” Lamont said in a statement after the vote. “Some have pointed out that raising the age to 21 will result in a net revenue loss to the state, but when it comes to the health of our young people we need to do what is right.”

Rep. William Petit, R-Plainville, asked Steinberg how the bill addresses the issue of regulating of tobacco products bought over the internet.

“We know this is a significant issue,” Steinberg said.“We are trying to ensure some young person isn’t trying to end run the system” by requiring someone over the age of 21 to sign for tobacco products that are delivered to a home.

Petit quizzed Steinberg on what the impact of losing younger customers will mean to retailers in the state.

“We do expect there will be some impact on retailers,” Steinberg said. He added, though: “We feel very strongly that the public health imperative outweighs” the negatives.