HARTFORD, CT — Increasing the minimum age to purchase tobacco products and e-cigarettes from 18 to 21 now awaits the promised signature of Gov. Ned Lamont to become state law.
The Senate passed the bill Friday with bipartisan support, 33-to-3.
The House already passed the bill, 124-to-22.
Lamont proposed raising the age as part of his first two-year budget.
When Lamont signs the bill, Connecticut will become the 15th state to raise the age to 21 to buy tobacco products, according to the American Lung Association.
“With the rising use of e-cigarettes and vaping products among young people, we are seeing a growing public health crisis,” Lamont said. “When I sign this into law, we will have taken an important step in protecting the health of the youngest members of our communities.”
A number of Connecticut cities and towns — including Hartford, Bridgeport, South Windsor, Southington, Wallingford, Trumbull and Milford — already have passed their own ordinances to raise the age.
Anti-smoking advocates were armed with momentum from a Department of Public Health 2017 Youth Tobacco Survey which 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.
In December, the U.S. Surgeon General labeled youth e-cigarette use an “epidemic” and urged states to act to address the crisis. A 2016 U.S. Surgeon General’s report concluded “e-cigarette use is strongly associated with the use of other tobacco products among youth and young adults, particularly combustible tobacco products.”
The Senate debate was focused more on vaping than cigarettes.
Sen. Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, called the vaping issue “an epidemic” in Connecticut schools.
“More and more kids are vaping without knowing how dangerous these products are,” Duff said. He said the same could be said about the dangers of cigarettes when cigarettes were first introduced to society decades ago.
At the school his son attends, Duff said, students are “vaping in bathrooms, in hallways, even in classrooms. … Schools have had to put in vaping detectors,” Duff said.
“Ninety percent of people who use tobacco products do so before the age of 21,” said Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly. “While we have seen declining use of traditional cigarettes, what we have seen is a skyrocketing use of electronic cigarettes. It’s increasing at an alarming rate.”
While the bill had wide bipartisan support, the vote wasn’t unanimous.
Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, said he isn’t an advocate of smoking or vaping, but he has the same problem with this measure that he has with gun control legislation.
“I feel this bill is a triumph of emotion over reason,” Sampson said. “This bill suggests that the people in this building are smarter than the people outside.”
“I keep hearing about what this bill means to children. This bill has nothing to do with children, it has to do with adults,” Sampson said, pointing out that the age of adulthood in the state is 18 in most situations.
Sen. Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, rejected that argument, saying it is “certainly government’s right” to raise the age, as the bill does. He called it a “reasonable extension.”
Critics, including Sampson, like to point out that Connecticut is one of the few states in the nation that spends none of the 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.
In addition to raising the age, 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 in tax revenue as a result of the legislation.
“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,” Lamont said.
The bill raises fees and fines, which are anticipated to increase state revenues by $1.2 million and offset additional regulatory costs incurred by the state departments of Revenue Services and Consumer Protection.