The General Assembly in Massachusetts and the city council in New York City recently voted to ban flavored vaping products. Thinkstock
Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport.
Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport.

After more than three hours of debate, the House approved a bill Thursday that would raise the age from 18 to 21 for anyone purchasing  cigarettes, tobacco products and electronic nicotine delivery systems.

Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport and co-chairman of the legislature’s public health committee, said the bill was one of the most important to be considered this year.

“This bill seeks to address what has become a national epidemic — this scourge of nicotine addiction and vaping among young people,” Steinberg told his colleagues. “You don’t have to take my word for it. After a 78 percent increase nationally in youth’s e-cigarette use, the surgeon general dubbed this a national epidemic.”

Steinberg said the nationwide electronic cigarette use among middle school and high school students has surpassed cigarette use.

“In Connecticut the rate of use has more than doubled in the period from 2015 to 2017, going from seven percent to over 14 percent and I would submit it is probably even higher now if we were to measure it today,” Steinberg said.

He said the bill is about “preventing nicotine addiction for future generations, starting with the middle schoolers of today. Reducing access to e-cigarettes and vaping means reducing future addiction.”

The bipartisan bill, which passed 124 to 22 with all of the Democrats voting in favor, did raise questions for some legislators, even some who voted for it.The bill will now move to the Senate. If passed by the Senate and signed into law by Gov. Ned Lamont, the state will become the 14th in the country to raise the age to purchase tobacco products to 21.

“Many years ago when most of our laws surrounding tobacco products were written, the medical evidence on the impact the substance has, particularly on young people, did not exist,” Lamont said in a statement after the bill passed. “Continuing the enforcement of outdated laws just because that’s the way it’s always been is not a good enough reason for why they should continue to reflect outdated perceptions.”

“And now with the rising use of e-cigarettes and vaping products among young people, we are seeing a growing public health crisis,” Lamont continued. “Some have pointed out that raising the age to 21 will result in a net revenue loss to the state, but when it comes to the health of our young people we need to do what is right. I commend the legislators today who had the courage to vote for this bill …Let’s get this bill through the Senate so I can sign it into law.”

Health advocates in Connecticut and the northeast  praised the bill and said it mirrors legislation raising the age for purchase of tobacco products in eight local communities in the state, including Hartford and Bridgeport.

“It’s never been more critical to pass legislation to raise the age of sale on tobacco products,” said Kevin O’Flaherty, Director of Advocacy, Northeast Region for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.  “While traditional tobacco use among kids is declining, we’ve never seen such a dramatic jump in the use of any tobacco product like we have in the last year with e-cigarette use among teenagers.  This bill will make it harder for kids in middle and high school to get tobacco products – cigarettes and e-cigarettes alike – and that is reason enough for passing this legislation.”

Among those representatives who voted for the bill despite having concerns was Rep. William Petit, R-Plainville.

“The comment many of us hear from constituents on social media,” Petit said,  “is if I’m old enough to go to war and die for the country, I should be old enough to buy cigarettes.”

“If people 18, 19, 20 are considered adult under other aspects of the law why wouldn’t we consider them adults here in terms of their civil rights and their ability to obtain a legal product?” Petit asked.

Steinberg said the definition of a minor varies depending on context. “This is a public health context,” he said. “That’s what really matters to us here.. I could argue that maybe the age ought to be 25. We know that the developing brain is still vulnerable until that age. We’re not asking for that. We’ve chosen 21 deliberately with a lot of consideration. It does conform with a number of other restrictions that we put on young people. I won’t argue that there’s a perfect number.”

Particularly key in the bill, Steinberg said, is the ban on the sale of e-cigarettes to people under 21 because the products often come in flavors that are appealing to young people.

“I find these liquid products really scary,” Steinberg said. While some are produced by manufacturers that he said are “ostensibly” reputable, there is also a “gray market exchange,” Steinberg continued, in which the person buying has no idea about the level of nicotine in the product or what else might be in it.

“We have heard of instances of people being able to vape liquid marijuana and even more scary, liquid heroin,” Steinberg said.

Steinberg said that often these products are designed to “appear innocuous” and it’s “difficult to ascertain what’s even being vaped.”

Steinberg noted that a previous version of the bill had banned the sale of flavored e-cigarettes. He said this was removed from the bill because the federal government has pledged “to do something significant about flavors in the near term.”

If the federal government fails to do so, Steinberg said proponents of this bill may be back next year with a bill that would put a ban on flavors.

Rep. Matt Blumenthal, D-Stamford, spoke in favor of the bill though he said he has “a small bit of disappointment that we’re not going after the flavors.”

He said he’s glad to hear that the proponents may address that issue next year if the federal government does not.

“This is just the latest iteration of a public health battle that has gone on for roughly a century in terms of our battle against the effects of tobacco and nicotine products,” Blumenthal said. “I just have to give so much credit to the proponents of this bill.”

Rep. Gale Mastrofrancesco, R-Wolcott, was one of several representatives who objected to the legislature telling people who are over the age of 18 how to behave.

“I am not going to go home and tell an adult what they can and cannot do,” Mastrofranceso said. “What I find very, very disturbing is that the representative mentioned the goal is to change people’s behavior so they don’t get addicted to nicotine… I find it very disturbing that the legislature feels we should be controlling people’s behavior. That’s what our freedom is all about… People died for our freedom so that we can make our own choices.”

She said it makes no sense to her that there is such a concern about the health risks of nicotine, “yet we are willing to legalize marijuana.”

The bill also says vending machines have to be placed in areas that are not open to people under the age of 21 and establishes fines for retailers that sell tobacco products to people under the age of 21.

“I want to make clear this bill does not seek to criminalize students,” Steinberg said. “It puts the onus on retailers and manufacturers to not sell these products to people under the age of 21.”

Steinberg noted that the vaping crisis has posed great problems for schools. Earlier this year, the State Board of Education released a report showing a six-fold increase in the number of suspensions and expulsions related to vaping last year.

“We want to help schools that are currently struggling mightily to stem the crisis, being obliged to raid bathrooms to catch illegal vaping, installing detectors and overall being distracted from their core mission, which is to educate our young people,” he said.

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Kathleen Megan wrote for more than three decades for the Hartford Courant, covering education in recent years and winning many regional and national awards. She is now covering education and child welfare issues for the Mirror.

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