In the past year and a half, several states have passed laws changing the age at which one can legally smoke cigarettes and other tobacco products.
So far in 2016, five different states, California, New Jersey, Illinois, Massachusetts and Vermont, have voted on legislation aimed at increasing the legal smoking age to 21.
The California bill prohibits an individual under 21 from purchasing tobacco products. However, some skeptics questioned the effectiveness of such a measure. State Senator John Moorlach pointed out that most minors who consume tobacco products are probably not concerned about their non-compliance. “I don’t expect human nature to change, whether in or out of a university,” he said.
A similar bill in New Jersey made it past the Senate and House votes, only to be vetoed by Governor Chris Christie in June. The bill would have increased the minimum age of tobacco consumption from 19 to 21, which supporters of the bill say would have been a huge step in reducing health problems; according to some experts 90 percent of smokers begin before they are 21 years old. Speaking on Assembly bill 3254, a previous iteration of the June bill, Democratic State Senator Richard Codey expressed his disappointment in the Governor and for the people and health of the state.
Again, another state, Illinois, voted to increase the legal smoking age to 21. One of the bill’s sponsors, state senator John Mulroe, said “we are going to save lives by increasing the age from 18 to 21, because studies have shown that if someone doesn’t start smoking by the time they are 21, they have a very slim chance of starting to smoke at all,”.
In Massachusetts, a bill aiming to increase the legal smoking age from 18 to 21, among other provisions, passed on a 32-2 vote. Senator Jason Lewis, a leader on the legislature’s public health committee, said that there is data supporting the age increase. A study conducted on the town of Needham pointed to a drop in youth smoking rates when the minimum age of consumption was raised to 21.
The President of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, Job Hurst, has a son in the military, and voiced his struggles to come to terms with the fact that servicemen and women who are able to fight for their country at 18 would be unable to “buy a tobacco product - say, a cigar - when they return home to Massachusetts”.
Certain retailers have a large financial stake in this debate because this bill would remove a block of their revenue from tobacco sales. Hurst’s opposition to the bill is understandable given the 3,200 members he represents as President of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts. Hurst added that the bill is “anti-business and anti-consumer” for banning retail locations that are legally licensed to sell tobacco products from selling to adults.
Vermont passed a bill that took a slightly different approach to increasing the legal smoking age from 18 to 21. Instead of jumping to 21 immediately, the bill, which passed the House 84-61, would incrementally increase the age to 21 by 2019. Lawmakers understand that this measure will not totally eliminate underage smoking, but it would “help shine a light for how to get to a place where smoking is not cool or socially acceptable in any age group,” said Democratic representative Mike Mrowicki.
He ended up voting against the bill, of which he was a co-sponsor. Upon our response to a request for comment as to why he ended up voting against the bill, Rep. Mrowicki said “The final version of the bill included an amendment offered from the floor during the Third reading that would exclude some uniformed military personnel from the smoking ban.
“We had taken testimony from Military personnel who informed us that smoking was as big a problem in the military as in civilian populations and I felt an exclusion for uniformed personnel was not in their best interests, nor the rest of us,” he added.
Estimates of a loss of $900,000 in tax revenue from the age increase are hoped to be offset by a new cigarette tax, which opponents like Rep. Ron Hubert called a “money grab”, though those in favor hope it will act as a further deterrent from smoking; “if you don’t want to pay the tax, don’t smoke”, said Rep. David Deen.
On one hand of the tobacco conversation there are those who believe reducing access to an unhealthy and addictive substance for minors is important, while others believe that as an adult, one should have the right to purchase tobacco products.
By Chris Cassingham, Key Votes Intern
Chris Cassingham is a rising Junior at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia and is currently interning at Vote Smart. He is pursuing a degree in Political Science and a minor in Urban Studies and hopes to work somewhere in policy or social advocacy upon graduation. For more information on internship opportunities with Vote Smart, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 1-888-VOTE-SMART.