Legislature weighs raising legal age for tobacco purchases

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AUGUSTA — Lawmakers are eyeing a proposal to hike the minimum age to buy cigarettes from 18 to 21.

Its sponsor, Sen. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville, said the move would help prevent “the current generation of kids in middle and high school” from getting trapped by a deadly addiction and perhaps pave the way for “the first tobacco-free generation.”

Opposition comes from retailers who worry about losing sales and from those who argue that 18-year-olds are adults who ought to have the same access to legal products as everyone else.

Two states, Hawaii and California, have raised the age for cigarette purchases and more than 200 communities across the country, including Portland, have also taken the step as part of a nationwide effort to snuff out smoking among teenagers.

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Lance Boucher, director of public policy for the American Lung Association in Maine, said 95 percent of adult smokers begin by age 21 — half of them before they even turn 18 — so it’s clear “we can and must do better to protect youth in Maine.”

Boucher told legislators that raising the age for all tobacco products’ use will “help prevent more youth from succumbing to an addiction that could cost them their lives from any number of diseases, including lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.”

Store owners, however, are not convinced.

“Increased sales restrictions will not prevent minors from accessing product. The reality is that kids will find a way, sometimes through unregulated, uncontrolled, untaxed black market sources,” said Joanne Mendes, executive director of the New England Convenience Store & Energy Marketers Association, which represents 1,200 retailers in Maine.

Besides, she told the Health and Human Services Committee, “for those who live on the border, raising the age just gives these smokers another reason to purchase their products in New Hampshire.”

“In the final analysis,” she told legislators, “you will be hurting the retail community more than having any effect upon youth smoking” by raising the legal age.

“Many 18-year-olds are still in high school,” said Peter Michaud, associate general counsel for the Maine Medical Association, which backs the proposal. “If tobacco products are available to them, those products are available for sharing with their friends.”

Davis said studies show that underage smokers don’t generally buy cigarettes from retailers but get tobacco products from “social sources,” mostly older friends.

Smokers who are 18 or 19 are often the suppliers for “younger kids who rely on social resources to buy” cigarettes, he said. Raising the legal age to 21 will cut off the supply for many, Davis said.

A junior at Lawrence High School in Fairfield, Katelyn Hardy testified that she has seen “how easy it is for kids at my school to get cigarettes, chew and vape pens” from older students who buy them and resell them to underage friends.

“It should be made more difficult for my peers to get cigarettes and other tobacco products,” she said. “I think it is wrong for kids my age to be smoking.”

“By increasing the age to purchase tobacco to 21, we would be making it more difficult for kids in my high school and our community to start smoking because they wouldn’t be able to go to their dealers. Also, l don’t know a lot of kids at my school that hang out with anyone that is 21 or older, so getting cigarettes and chew that way shouldn’t be an issue,” Hardy said.

Davis said raising the age for buying tobacco products would help reduce the “staggering statistics” that recently found about one in four high school students in Piscataquis, Somerset and Penobscot counties had used some form of tobacco in the past 30 days.

“Raising the age for purchase to 21 won’t be perfect, but it will help to keep those products out of the hands — and lungs — of adolescents,” Michaud said. “It will help to keep addictive nicotine out of their developing brains, too.”

A 2015 report from the Institute of Medicine on the public health implications of raising the minimum age found that requiring buyers to be at least 21 would reduce future smoking by 12 percent and cut the number of deaths related to smoking by 10 percent for future generations.

Hilary Schneider, the Maine government relations director for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, said that because they know the early years are critical “for solidifying tobacco addiction,” tobacco companies “heavily target young adults ages 18 to 21 through a variety of marketing activities sponsoring music and sporting events, bar promotions, college marketing programs, college scholarships and parties.”

“Increasing the age for sale of tobacco products to 21 will help counter the tobacco industry’s efforts to target young people at a critical time when many move from experimenting with tobacco to regular smoking,” she told lawmakers. “It will also help keep tobacco out of high schools, where younger teens often obtain tobacco products from older students.”

The executive director of the Retail Association of Maine, Curtis Picard, said it’s important to note that the 18-year-olds who are allowed to buy tobacco products “are not juveniles.”

“That is the crux of this bill,” he said. “At age 18, a person is a legal adult and has the right to cast a vote and to serve our nation in the military. We believe they also have the right to choose to purchase and use these products.”

“Every day, we all make choices that other people may find objectionable. I should probably choose the salad instead of the french fries or choose the water instead of the soda,” he said. “As adults, we get to make those choices and I believe the same should apply to tobacco products.”

Davis said, though, that tobacco is different.

“Tobacco is the only product that, when used as intended, causes addiction, disease and death,” the senator said.

“I know this personally. When I left the Army, I was heavily addicted to tobacco, smoking two packs a day,” he said, adding that he lost both his father and brother to lung cancer.

“My generation, and that of many of us in this room, has been gripped by the addiction of tobacco,” he said. “Many of us started smoking before the dangers of smoking were well-known, before the tobacco industry was caught lying to Congress about the health effects and addictive nature of tobacco.”

Alyssa Murray, a senior at the Maine College of Art, said raising the age may cause young people to think twice before starting to use tobacco.

“This deadly drug is killing our future,” she told legislators. “Let’s lower the statistics by increasing the sales age from 18 to 21, not only to decrease the rate of Maine smokers but also to improve the overall health and well-being of today’s youth.”

She said that since Portland’s ordinance went into effect, she’s seen that friends younger than 21 “have had a harder time accessing tobacco. It is my sincere hope that the inconvenience that is leading them to smoke less, will eventually inspire them to quit.”

Legislators are considering a bill that would raise the minimum age to 21 for buying and consuming tobacco products in Maine.

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