Reporting from BURLINGTON, Vt.
When Vermonters turn 18, they can vote and serve in the military, but a new piece of legislation might change the smoking age to 21.
The Vermont House approved the bill, H.93, last April after an 84-61 vote and multiple revisions, but the senate did not have time to take it up before the session ended.
Rep. George Till, D-Jericho, sponsored the bill and reintroduced the legislation as H.52 on Jan. 17.
Till, a physician at the University of Vermont Medical Center, has been advocating for the change for the past six years.
“We know that the younger you are, the easiest it is to get addicted to something,” Till said. “The companies know this. That’s why they market tobacco products towards youth.”
Till’s argument is that reduced youth access to tobacco will have a major impact, as most smokers begin at a young age. Nearly nine out of 10 cigarette smokers first tried smoking by age 18, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Till feels that the age increase would keep access out of the social circles of high school students.
He works as a doctor of reproductive sciences and sees countless premature babies as a result of mothers who smoke. Till’s frequent exposure to the data in the medical field has been a driver for him.
“Why should something that kills 1 in 5 people be allowed for 18 year olds?” he said.
Fifteen percent of tobacco sales in Vermont are to 18-21 year olds, but Till does not see the loss of revenue as a drawback. He believes that a decrease in smoking overall will prompt huge savings on medical costs.
“It’s a healthcare issue, it’s an economic issue, and frankly it’s a moral issue allowing people to get addicted,” Till said.
Former Gov. Peter Shumlin opposed the measure, and a spokesperson for Republican Gov. Phil Scott confirmed to the Associated Press in November that he is also against raising the age.
Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield, who was a strong advocate against the policy in the House, believes that the principals of the bill are unjust.
“One of the most fundamental rights we have is the ability to make a bad decision,” she said. “If we are only allowed to make good choices, we have no rights.”
The issue was split non-partisan in the House, according to Till and Donahue. One of the main opposing arguments was that if you can serve in the military, you should be allowed to smoke. This concern prompted an amendment to the bill to exempt military members, which was passed.
Donahue cited that the death penalty goes into effect beginning at age 18, amongst other legal responsibilities, and believes it to be a reasonable age to make decisions.
“It wouldn’t be rational to say you couldn’t buy a house or sign a contract at 18,” she said.
Despite her opposition, Donahue believes the bill would decrease youth smoking, but doesn’t think the change would be significant.
Margo Austin, the Student Assistance Program Counselor at the Burlington High School, believes the bill could have a major impact in reducing teen exposure to tobacco. Her role includes drug and tobacco education and running a group to help students quit smoking.
“It’s all about indirect access,” Austin said. “If you move the age for tobacco to 21, you’ve really made a difference in keeping it away from youth.”
She sees the lack of regulation and youth-driven marketing tactics of e-cigarettes to be a growing problem. The smoking age bill would also raise the age to purchase these products, in addition to chewing tobacco.
“When you kill 1,000 people a day you need more customers,” she said.
BHS has seen a steady decline in cigarette smoking over the past 15 years, according to data from the bi-annual Youth Behavior Risk Survey. The percentage of students who reported smoking a cigarette in the past 30 days is at 8 percent, down from 26 percent in 2001. BHS is below the state average of 11 percent.
Austin cited availability, perception of harm, laws and social norms as the key drivers to tobacco use. Strong education and increased public smoking bans have helped decrease use among youth, she said.
The University of Vermont campus went tobacco free in 2015, St. Michael’s College banned smoking this year, and Champlain College has a ban in place on its central campus.
Student Taking Actions and Risks Together (START), a BHS student-group advocating against drugs and tobacco, pushed for a smoking ban in Burlington parks and beaches last year. The organization was unsuccessful in convincing city councilors to implement it.
Will Keeton, a BHS junior has mixed feelings about raising the age. He doesn’t think there would be a huge impact, but ultimately would support the bill.
“I’m not sure if smoking is really a huge issue at BHS and in the state of Vermont,” Keeton said.
Senior Michael Demaggio strongly believes the policy would make an impact.
“In high school, you know a lot of 18 year olds but not a lot of 21 year olds,” he said. “You would definitely lose the connections to get cigarettes.”