May 8, 2019

Bill to raise tobacco age to 21 scheduled for hearing

Legislation has support from tobacco industry this year
STATE HOUSE – For the sixth consecutive year, Rep. Teresa Tanzi has once again filed legislation to increase the age to buy tobacco products in Rhode Island to 21. This time, she has support from an unlikely backer: the tobacco industry.

Representative Tanzi said the industry is supporting the bill for the first time ever, agreeing to the need to protect adolescents from the highly addictive product. Tobacco giant Altria, which owns a 35-percent share in the largest vaping device maker, Juul, submitted testimony in favor of a companion bill when it was heard in the Senate last month. 

The legislation (2019-H 5603), which is scheduled for a hearing before the House Finance Committee, Thursday, May 9, at the rise of the House session, would make Rhode Island the 13th state in the country to raise the age to buy tobacco products to 21. Massachusetts changed its minimum age to 21 on Jan. 1. In Rhode Island, Central Falls and Barrington have adopted local ordinances prohibiting sales to those under 21, joining Boston and New York City among the more than 450 municipalities across the country with such ordinances.

“The still-developing brains of youth are particularly susceptible to the drug nicotine and the lure of the sleek devices and the sweet flavors, creating a lifelong addiction without comprehension of the long-term health consequences. Raising the age for the sale of tobacco and nicotine products makes them harder for young people to acquire through both social sources — an older sibling or friend — or through retail outlets, and will help the next generation avoid addiction and live longer, healthier lives,” said Representative Tanzi (D-Dist. 34, South Kingstown, Narragansett).

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, more than 80 percent of all adult smokers begin smoking before the age of 18; and approximately 95 percent of all adult smokers began smoking before age 21.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, most tobacco use is started and established primarily during adolescence, and therefore preventing tobacco use among youth is critical to ending the tobacco epidemic in the United States, which is responsible for the deaths of 480,000 Americans annually. In Rhode Island, 1,800 adults die each year from their own tobacco use, and the state’s annual health care costs due to tobacco use are about $640 million. While teen smoking rates have declined significantly in recent years, teens’ use of vaping products has risen swiftly in the few years they’ve been on the market. According to the federal Department of Health and Human Services, in 2018, 5 percent of American adolescents reported smoking a cigarette in the last month, verses 28 percent in a 1996/1997 survey. About 300 Rhode Island children become new daily smokers every year, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health from 2017. But the percentage of high school seniors who had used an e-cigarette in the past 30 days increased from 1.5 percent in 2010 to 26.7 percent in 2018. 

Changing the tobacco purchase age to 21 has the support of health advocates in Rhode Island and nationwide, including the American Lung Association, the American Heart Association and the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids. Rhode Island’s U.S. Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse have cosponsored federal legislation to raise age to 21 nationwide.

Representative Tanzi points to success in reducing youth tobacco use in communities that adopt higher age restrictions, and the positive effect that less smoking would have on Rhode Islanders’ health as well as public and private health care costs. 

The Institute of Medicine for the Food and Drug Administration estimated that raising the age of tobacco purchase to 21 nationwide would result in a 25-percent reduction in youth tobacco use initiation, a 12-percent reduction in rates overall, and 16,000 fewer preterm or low birth weight births in the first five years of the policy. The report estimated that such a policy throughout the United States would prevent 4.2 million years of life lost to smoking in children alive today. In another study, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control found that 75 percent of adults favor raising the tobacco age to 21, including 70 percent of smokers and 65 percent of those age 18 to 24.