Lawmakers Debating Tobacco Bill Weigh Rights, Health Of 18-Year-Olds

Apr 4, 2017

Backers of legislation that would raise the legal age to purchase tobacco products from 18 years old to 21 years old are urging members of the Senate to support their bill.

In many ways, the debate over this issue pits efforts to reduce smoking rates and associated health care costs against the rights of people who are 18 years old.

Noah Smith is an 18-year-old senior at Burlington High School and is very active in smoking prevention programs.

Smith says the biggest benefit of the bill is to put tobacco out of the reach of sophomores and juniors — because right now, he says, these younger students are getting their tobacco products from older students.

"They are buying, borrowing or bumming cigarettes from people they see every day and spend the most time with their classmates who can legally buy tobacco,” said Smith. “Students my age are introducing 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds to addictive, deadly products every day in the hallways and bathrooms of BHS."

Dr. Becca Bell is a pediatric intensive care physician. Bell strongly supports the bill, because she says studies show that the brain of a young teenager is much more susceptible to nicotine addiction than a 21-year-old.

"Students my age are introducing 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds to addictive deadly products every day in the hallways and bathrooms of BHS." — Burlington High School senior Noah Smith

"That would really have a big impact on the age group between 15 and 17 [years old],” said Bell. “So those kids whose brains are really primed to become addicted to nicotine are not going to be exposed, they're not in the same social circle as tightly with 21-year-olds as they are with 18-year-olds, right? They go to school with 18-year-olds."

It's estimated that the state will lose around $750,000 a year in revenue if the bill becomes law because of lower tobacco sales. But advocates argue that the savings in health care costs will far outweigh this revenue loss.

Rutland Sen. Peg Flory says she fully realizes the health care benefits of raising the age from 18 to 21. But she's concerned that the bill creates an inconsistent policy of what defines "the age of majority" in Vermont, because 18-year-olds currently have a number of important rights.

"To join the military without parental consent, to sign a contract, to vote, to get married, but yet you're not responsible enough to have a drink or choose whether to buy cigarettes,” said Flory. “That doesn't make sense to me."

"To join the military without parental consent, to sign a contract, to vote, to get married, but yet you're not responsible enough to have a drink or choose whether to buy cigarettes? That doesn't make sense to me." — Rutland Sen. Peg Flory

Senate President Tim Ashe has similar concerns.

"I haven't yet reconciled that issue of being able to serve overseas for your country and not be able to smoke cigarettes when you return,” said Ashe. “It's not about money, and I get the public health issues and I believe we should do everything we can to prevent people from smoking, but I still can't quite reconcile those two issues, personally." 

Sponsors of the bill say they'll move to bring the legislation to the Senate floor when they're certain that they have the votes to win. But, at this time, they're still looking for more votes.