New Hampshire Senate debates raising tobacco age to 21

Monitor staff
Published: 11/20/2019 3:17:29 PM

A proposal to raise New Hampshire’s tobacco minimum age to 21 – two months after it jumped to 19 – is moving forward on partisan lines.

In a divided, 3-2 vote, Democrats on the Senate Commerce Committee recommended the passage of legislation to make buying and possessing tobacco products illegal under 21, seeking to add New Hampshire to a recent wave of states that have done the same.

The bill, Senate Bill 248, would also require schools to develop policies specifying violations for those who pass on tobacco products to people age 20 and under.

Advocates of the national campaign, driven by an organization called Tobacco 21, say it would cut down on a growing surge of youth use of electronic cigarettes and vaping devices, and keep tobacco products available to young adults.

Vaping use in high schools has skyrocketed; New Hampshire has the highest youth vaping use in the country, with 40% of students trying it at least once and 4% vaping at least every day, according to a recent survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Research on the long term effects of the activity is still unclear, but a spate of vaping illnesses apparently related to cannabis vaping products has led to more than 40 deaths this year.

Citing that recent surge, Senate President Donna Soucy, a Manchester Democrat, said a statewide age hike is necessary in New Hampshire.

“I really think this is the right time to enact this legislation, and I think it’s important that we do it,” Soucy said.

But Republicans said the leap would impede on young people’s freedom, especially after the state already raised the age from 18 to 19 in the compromise budget, which will kick in this Jan. 1. New Hampshire’s Republican governor, Chris Sununu, also opposes an increase to 21.

“I don’t believe that this issue is actually an issue about tobacco, cigarettes, use of nicotine,” said Sen. Harold French, a Franklin Republican on the Commerce Committee. “I believe it’s the rights of our young adults to make decisions that’s at stake here.”

To French, the prohibition on health concerns would be at odds with the other liberties offered to 19-year-olds.

“Whether they choose to smoke or take nicotine, these are the same people we give the right to vote to, the right to sign away their life to go war for us,” he said. “They have the right to marry, among many other legal responsibilities they can take on. And we’re telling them that they don’t have the capability of deciding whether they’re going to use nicotine or not.”

French joined with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Morse, a Salem Republican, in voting against recommending the bill.

The vote is a preview of what could turn into a partisan battle next year when the bill comes before the full Senate. But it also comes as a number of states have adopted 21-year-old age thresholds for tobacco themselves. Since the start of the year, 12 states have passed similar legislation, bringing the total number of 21-plus tobacco states to 18.

Some in the tobacco industry – shaken recently by a torrent of negative headlines surrounding vaping – have also jumped on board. Altria, the parent company of Juul, a major vaping manufacturer, supports a 21-plus tobacco age nationwide.

But for Soucy and other Democrats, supporting it was not an initial decision.

“When we heard of this bill, Feb. 7, I did have a few concerns about how this bill could be enacted and what the impact could be,” Soucy said. “Since that time, I think a lot has changed.”

Sen. Jon Morgan, a Brentwood Democrat, agreed, saying that he “too had reservations early on.”

“This hasn’t been the easiest bill to make a decision on,” he said, adding that he was swayed because of the health costs created by the habit.

“Those health issues have to be paid for through our health care system,” he said. “It costs us tens of billions of dollars to our taxpayers annually.”

Earlier this year, Democrats forced into the budget an increase in the tobacco age to 19, a provision that Gov. Chris Sununu approved reluctantly. That hike was designed to make it more difficult for underclassmen to obtain tobacco products from high school seniors.

But Nancy Vaughn, government relations director at the American Heart Association of New Hampshire, argues that the move wasn’t enough to keep vaping devices out of the hands of teenagers.

“Nineteen does not get tobacco out of schools because many 19-year-olds are still going to high schools,” she said.

Vaughn said the drive for a 21-year-old limit specifically was informed by research carried out on the nation-wide 21-year-old threshold for alcohol. Socially, those below that age are more likely to associate with teenagers, Vaughn said; those above that age travel in different social circles.

“It really is the fact that people are still able to get these products,” Vaughn said. “It was really the electronic issue and the huge upsurge in usage that really catapulted us moving forward with this policy.”

The increase in deaths has prompted activity at the state and federal level. President Donald Trump initially floated a federal ban on flavored vaping products, but has reportedly since backed down from that pledge.

Many efforts in other states this year predated the wave of deaths, Vaughn said. But, given the spotlight “it’s all the more important now I think,” Vaughn argued.

 

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, 369-3307 or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)




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