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Jim Kenyon: Vermont’s smoking age bill is smoke and mirrors

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on Jan. 28, 2019. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 3/2/2019 10:37:36 PM
Modified: 3/2/2019 10:37:37 PM

Chances are better than ever now that Vermont will raise its smoking age from 18 to 21 this summer. The state Senate gave its OK on Friday and the House shouldn’t be far behind. Gov. Phil Scott also appears on board.

So what’s the problem?

It’s unnecessary. Tobacco use among young people is on the decline; anti-smoking campaigns in schools and in the media are working. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 8.1 percent of U.S. high school students — about two of every 25 — reported in 2018 that they had smoked cigarettes in the past 30 days, a decrease from 15.8 percent in 2011.

“Raising the age from 18 to 21 won’t make as big of a difference as (U.S.) lawmakers hope, given that most smokers — nine out of 10, according to the Surgeon General — have already begun lighting up by 18,” The Atlantic reported in 2013.

But Vermont lawmakers are bent on finding a solution in search of a problem. It’s another example of the Cocoon generation (to see for yourself, spend a day at the Statehouse) wielding its power over 18- to 20-year-olds who apparently are mature enough to vote and go off to war, but can’t be trusted to make personal choices on smoking and drinking.

The we’re-doing-this-for-your-own-good argument is growing old. Since 2015, six states, including Maine and Massachusetts, have raised the smoking age to 21.

State Sen. Chris Pearson, a Democrat and Progressive from Burlington, is one of the few — at least among liberals — to question the merits of the age change that has been debated for years and was narrowly defeated in 2016.

“I think we have accepted that age 18 is when one becomes an adult,” Pearson said in a January interview with VtDigger. “And you can make a lot of weighty choices that will impact the rest of your life ... you can do all sorts of things, good and bad, including deciding to use tobacco.”

There’s no disputing the health benefits of raising the smoking age, Pearson added: “I’m quite sure, if we waited to (age) 31, the data would be even stronger.”

“I’m just looking at a bit of a bigger picture in recognizing that, as an adult, people have to make choices for themselves,” he said.

This isn’t just about Vermont being a nanny state. It’s also a way for law enforcement to intrude into the daily lives of otherwise law-abiding young adults.

Under the proposal, cops can issue tickets to anyone under 21 who is caught smoking or possessing tobacco products, tobacco substitutes or tobacco paraphernalia. (Anyone who turns 18 before the proposed law goes into effect on July 1 would be grandfathered in.)

Thankfully, offenders wouldn’t end up with a criminal record. They would, however, get hit with a $25 fine that increases to $50 a pop after the first offense. Anyone caught using a fake ID to buy smokes can have 10 hours of community service tacked onto their fine.

The proposed law amounts to a tax on people who can least afford it. Nationally, the largest percentage of smokers (21.4 percent) are adults with an annual household income of less than $35,000.

I worry enforcement will be uneven at best. Are underage smokers at Middlebury College and the University of Vermont going to be targeted? Or will it mostly be young adults standing on street corners in down-and-out communities?

I can also see overzealous police using the law to justify fishing expeditions — stopping a kid or young-looking adult who’s walking down a street or driving the speed limit in hopes of nabbing him or her for something bigger.

Last week at the Statehouse, the law’s proponents didn’t share my concerns.

“I don’t see enforcement against individuals as the emphasis,” said Rep. George Till, D-Jericho.

Enforcement efforts will be aimed at retailers who sell to underage smokers, he said. The civil penalty for furnishing tobacco products to anyone under 21 starts at $100.

As long as New Hampshire’s smoking age remains at 18, the law is likely to have less impact in the Upper Valley than other parts of Vermont. But I’m not sure what it means for young adults who purchase tobacco products legally in New Hampshire and then come back across the river with a pack of Marlboros.

Good luck explaining that to a cop or judge.

The law’s potential benefits far outweigh any drawbacks, Till told me.

“We need a law because tobacco companies market to kids, they always have,” said Till, a physician who has taken the lead on H.27.

State Sen. Alison Clarkson, D-Windsor County, is convinced that raising the smoking age to 21 will save lives and money. The Senate version, of which Clarkson is a sponsor, points out that among youths who persist in smoking, one-third will die prematurely from a smoking-related illness.

But Clarkson acknowledged that if Vermont really wanted to snuff out smoking it would raise the age even higher — only 1 percent of smokers pick up the habit after turning 25.

Even with Democrats in firm control of both chambers — which is why the age change is virtually a slam dunk this year — I haven’t heard anyone suggest upping the minimum age to 26.

From a public health standpoint, it makes sense. The fewer smokers, the better.

No matter what the state sets the age limit at — 18, 21, 26, take your pick — I’d feel better if penalizing people financially for their addiction wasn’t part of the equation.

Fines are needed to “send a message,” said state Sen. Ginny Lyons, a Williston Democrat who has led Vermont’s “Tobacco 21” charge with Till for years.

But what kind of message are we sending when we take away choice? Young adults are adults — whether Vermont lawmakers appreciate that or not.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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