Raising age to buy tobacco products will save lives, money

By Rep. JESSICA BRUMSTED

This past week the Vermont House passed S. 86, an act relating to increasing the legal age for buying and using cigarettes, electronic cigarettes, and other tobacco products from 18 to 21 years of age, on a very strong 124-14 vote. The bill can be found on the Vermont.gov website. It was my privilege to be the reporter of this important legislation on behalf of my Human Services Committee.

During the time that we heard testimony on the bill and in preparing to report it, I learned a great deal of pertinent information on the subject.

In December of 2018, the Surgeon General took a very unusual step of releasing an advisory emergency statement about electronic cigarettes referring to the issue as an “epidemic” and expressing the need for rapid action to avoid a population health disaster. In his statement, the Surgeon General reported  an astounding 78 percent increase in e-cigarette usage by high school students and 47 percent increase of middle school students – all in one year.

Data from the 2018 National Youth Tobacco Survey shows that a teenager who starts using e-cigarettes, otherwise known as vaping, is four times more likely to become a traditional cigarette smoker than a teenager who does not. The huge population health implication is obvious. Teens get addicted to nicotine at lower levels than adults and addiction is more difficult to overcome.  The gains we have made against tobacco usage over the last 50 years are at risk of being rapidly reversed if we do not move to halt the trend in Vermont.

Raising the minimum age to buy tobacco to 21 would save lives by preventing adolescents from ever taking up smoking. It is the best way to prevent lifelong addiction and associated chronic disease and suffering. Research tells us that if our youth can get through adolescence without smoking, it is highly unlikely they will ever start. On the other hand, brain science shows that it is much more difficult for adolescents who do start to stop. Nicotine’s effect on brain development leads adolescents to heavier daily tobacco use, a stronger nicotine addiction, and more trouble with quitting later in life.  A full 95 percent of adult smokers started before age 21, and 60 percent of youth obtain tobacco products from a social source, often an 18 year-old they know. Many seniors in high school are 18, and the research clearly shows that youth friendships range in a 3 to 4-year window, hence 14 and 15-year-olds have access to tobacco and e-cigarettes. 

Raising the purchase age for tobacco products will save Vermont money. Currently Vermonters spend $348 million on direct medical costs for tobacco-related illnesses, whether it is through increased healthcare premiums or tax dollars. These are preventable expenditures and this is the low hanging fruit for reducing healthcare spending. On top of direct medical costs, Vermont’s economy suffers another $250 million in lost productivity due to tobacco illnesses, bringing the total yearly expense to $600 million. Vermont is not charting new ground with passage of this bill. Over the past 15 years, 14 states and more than 200 cities and towns across the country have raised the age to 21 and reaped the benefits of healthier teens who become healthier, non-addicted adults and enormous savings in health spending.

One of the few compelling arguments against S.86 was denying 18-21 year-olds the “right” to use tobacco while some of those very same people serve our state and country in the Vermont National Guard and the military. However, Vermont Adjutant and Inspector General Greg Knight, recently elected to his post by an overwhelming majority of the Vermont Legislature, submitted testimony in support of S.86 in which he stated, “If the proposal passes and becomes law we see this no different than the legal drinking age … being a member of the Vermont National Guard requires a level of health and fitness that is potentially impacted by smoking. A member of the National Guard that smokes is no different than a civilian in the fact that smoking can have consequences to long-term health and wellness, which impacts health care costs.”                        

This is the third leg of a three-pronged public health approach to reducing tobacco related illnesses and death that the Legislature is dealing with this year. As stated previously, S. 86 would raise the legal age for buying and using cigarettes, electronic cigarettes, and other tobacco products from 18 to 21. H.26 intends to ban the internet sales of e-cigarettes and tobacco paraphernalia. Finally, H.47 would equalize the excise tax on tobacco products by adding liquids and delivery devices for e-cigarettes and vaping products to items taxes. The Vermont Legislature believes this set of bills  represent its strong interest in protecting the health of all the children in the state and, in the process, protecting all Vermonters and reducing costs in health care expenditures.

In other news, two of our Shelburne residents were unanimously confirmed by the Vermont Senate this past week to their positions in Governor Scott’s administration. A hearty congratulations to Al Gobeille and Mark Levine as they continue their outstanding service to all Vermonters in their roles as Secretary of the Agency of Human Services and Commissioner of the Vermont Department of Health, respectively.

Please know that if you have any questions or comments about what is happening at the statehouse you can always either send me an email at jbrumsted@leg.state.vt.us or call the Statehouse at 802-828-2228 and they will get the message to me but remember to include your phone and/or email so that I can get back to you.

Thank you for the opportunity to serve!

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