Bill would raise age to buy tobacco to 21 in New Hampshire

  • State Sen. David Watters teams up with students from Dover Youth to Youth to highlight a new bill that would raise the state’s legal age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21. PAUL STEINHAUSER / For the Monitor

For the Monitor
Published: 1/15/2018 6:50:59 PM

Mirroring a growing trend across the country, a new bill in the New Hampshire Legislature would raise to 21 the legal age to buy cigarettes and other tobacco products.

Democratic state Sen. David Watters of Dover said the measure he co-sponsored with Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, a Republican, comes down to public health and saving the lives of young people.

“We’re talking about saving thousands of lives over a lifetime,” Watters told the Monitor on Monday. “If people don’t start smoking by the age of 21, it’s very unlikely they will ever start.”

He added that tobacco remains the No. 1 preventable cause of death and disease in New Hampshire, which he said “has some of the highest under-21 smoking rates in the nation.”

Watters was interviewed minutes before he teamed up with students from Dover Youth to Youth, a youth empowerment program dedicated to substance abuse prevention, to highlight the bill. The state Senate Health and Human Services Committee will hold a hearing on the legislation, Senate Bill 545, on Thursday afternoon.

Caitlan Temple, a student with Dover Youth to Youth, supported increasing the age to 21.

“It will prevent thousands of kids from ever smoking at all,” she said.

Watters said the bill simply takes the existing statute and raises the age from 18 to 21.

He said that raising the age would “help students in middle school and high school have less access to people who might give them or sell them tobacco products.”

Dover Youth to Youth’s Hannah Martuscello agreed with Watters’s evaluation.

“The current age being 18, it means many seniors in high school who have reached that age are old enough to legally purchase tobacco and then bring the tobacco products into the schools or provide them to younger students,” she said.

Watters pointed to Maine, where lawmakers last summer overrode Gov. Paul LePage’s veto to raise the tobacco purchase age to 21. Maine will join California, Oregon, Hawaii and New Jersey in raising the age to 21.

Watters also highlighted that 120 communities in Massachusetts, including Boston, have raised the tobacco purchase age to 21. A bill that would raise the age across the state is currently advancing through the Massachusetts Legislature.

“I think the time has really come,” Watters said as he described the bipartisan support in the State House.

The bill has the backing of Bradley, who is also the chair of the Health and Human Services Committee. And Watters said that “the majority of the House members supporting it (the bill) are Republicans.”

But state Sen. Andy Sanborn, a Republican, doesn’t appear to be a fan.

The conservative from Bedford, who’s running for the open congressional seat in New Hampshire’s 1st District, said he had not seen the bill before, but after taking a quick look at it, told the Monitor the legislation “doesn’t seem like the New Hampshire ‘Live Free or Die’ philosophy.”

“I don’t smoke. I have never smoked. I don’t think anyone should smoke,” Sanborn was quick to point out, adding that “as much as I personally don’t like smoking, it’s a freedom issue.

“If people personally feel that they want to smoke, they have that God-given right to do so,” he said.

Watters pushed back against such criticism.

“We regulate those things which are proven harmful,” he said. “We regulate alcohol. We set certain ages for driving. We already regulate smoking because we realize its intended use will cause addiction and cancer death.”

Sanborn also pointed out that “there’s still nothing to preclude anyone from going online and buying them and having them then shipped to their house.”

“So why ban the ability to buy them at retail in a store in New Hampshire but still allow people to go online and have them shipped in?” he asked.

Online sales of tobacco and other products are regulated at the federal level.

Sanborn also argued that “just the loss of cigarette tax revenue I think would be about $8 million a year. Then you add on to the loss of revenue from all those convenience stores that sell cigarettes and all the ancillary things that they would sell when selling cigarettes, and there’s a huge financial pit to the New Hampshire economy.”

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