March 26, 2015

House Health, Education and Welfare Committee hears Rep. Tanzi bill raising smoking age to 21

STATE HOUSE – Focusing on the health benefits that have come from similar adoption elsewhere, Rep. Teresa Tanzi (D-Dist. 34, South Kingstown, Narragansett) testified yesterday before the House Committee on Health, Education and Welfare in support of her proposed legislation that would increase the minimum age for tobacco purchases in Rhode Island from 18 to 21.

The legislation (2015-H 5225) would apply to all forms of tobacco and non-medical nicotine delivery systems, and would take effect immediately upon passage.

Representative Tanzi spoke at the committee hearing, saying she introduced the legislation because she believes the state needs to enact stronger, science-based policies to protect the long term health of youth and for the sake overall public health. She also debunked the arguments that the law would have a profound economic impact.

“Many of the cities and towns in our neighboring Massachusetts have set the age limit at 21, and Needham was one of the first,” Representative Tanzi told the committee. “And there were many skeptics who said, ‘This is going to kill our businesses. This is going to be unenforceable because kids are just going to walk over to the next town.’ And I don’t want to minimize those concerns. But there’s a difference between anecdotal evidence and actual evidence. The fact is that it amounts to a 2 percent reduction in sales for one item in the store. And I ask you to weigh it against the known health benefits. In Needham, there was a 48 percent drop in those under the age of 21 who used a cigarette in the last 30 days, and there was a 62 percent drop in those who smoked 10 to 30 cigarettes a day.”

According to a 2015 report issued by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, if the tobacco age were raised now to age 21 nationwide, modeling suggests that for the cohort of people born between 2000 and 2019 there would be about 10 percent fewer lifetime premature deaths, lung cancer deaths, and years of life lost from cigarette smoking. Given the status quo projections, this translates to about 249,000 fewer premature deaths, 45,000 fewer deaths from lung cancer, and 4.2 million fewer years of life lost.

 “Nicotine addiction is tough to break, and most smokers get hooked at a young age. My hope is that making it harder for younger people to get cigarettes would have the effect of preventing smokers from starting in the first place, and the evidence is mounting in support of this,” Representative Tanzi told the committee. “The bottom line is public policy can create better health outcomes for more Rhode Islanders, and when the science is this strong in support of a change in policy, it would be irresponsible not to act.”

Tanzi went on to say, “The General Assembly was given a budget with a mandate to reduce state Medicaid spending by $90 million, and until we truly commit to innovate, we will never achieve the level of spending reductions on healthcare costs that the public expects us to achieve. It is time we search beyond further devastating cuts in programs as we have in the past, and serve the true purpose of healthcare reform by revolutionizing public health from the ground up. Bending the cost curve is great to talk about, but it will never be achieved by nibbling at the edges. While cost savings will not be realized now, they will never come if we fail to act now.”

Several states — New Jersey, Alaska, Alabama and Utah — have set their minimum age for tobacco purchases at age 19. Last year, New York City banned sales to those younger than 21. Representative Tanzi’s bill would make Rhode Island the first state to do so.

The legislation is cosponsored by Rep. Mia Ackerman (D-Dist. 45, Cumberland, Lincoln), Rep. Arthur Handy (D-Dist. 18, Cranston), Rep. John J. Lombardi (D-Dist. 8, Providence) and Rep. Shelby Maldonado (D-Dist. 56, Central Falls.