Encouraging healthy behavior and decreasing substance abuse in our community.


Published on March 20th, 2018 | by Deb Wolf


What is Tobacco 21?

Current PrEvents | March 19, 2018


Consider these facts: Smoking tobacco is the number one cause of preventable death in the United States. There are 500,000 premature deaths from smoking each year. Each year in Vermont, 1,000 adults die from smoking. The cost of health care for tobacco use is $348 million; and lost productivity costs $232 million.

Now add in this fact: Only 1 percent of smokers begin smoking after the age of 26. And 95 percent of adult smokers begin smoking before the age of 21. What this means is that if we can keep people from smoking before they reach their early 20s they will probably never smoke at all. Think of the lives and dollars we could save!

The age of purchase for tobacco in Vermont is 18. This is a problem because many 18-year-olds are still in high school, and provide access and role modeling to their younger classmates. Upping the age to 21 puts the purchasers into a completely different cohort. Tobacco 21 will reduce the rate of smoking in 15- to 17-year-olds by 25 percent, according to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies.

What would be included in Tobacco 21? Best practice would include all tobacco and nicotine products, including all types of e-cigarettes and the substances that go in them. It would not include nicotine replacement products intended for cessation such as gum, patches and lozenges.

New Jersey, Maine, Oregon, Hawaii, California, and more than 250 localities across the U.S. have passed Tobacco 21 laws. The research is clear — raising the age of purchase raises the age that people start using and reduces prevalence of use. Why is this so important? Despite successes in the last half-century to reduce smoking rates, tobacco use is still the number one cause of preventable death in the U.S. The 2010 Surgeon General’s Report states that “there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke. Any exposure to tobacco smoke — even an occasional cigarette or exposure to secondhand smoke — is harmful.” At least 69 of the toxic chemicals in tobacco cause cancer and can impact the health of those who are exposed, including problems with asthma and upper respiratory infections.

And we should be concerned. While rates of smoking among Vermont adults and youth have been going down, youth rates are rising again. The tobacco industry’s new tactics to engage youth with new items, such as flavored tobacco products, hookahs and e-cigarettes are working. Thirty percent of Vermont students have tried e-cigarettes, according to the 2015 Vermont Youth Risk Behavior Survey, and that number is expected to rise, since kids are drawn to “Juuls” and other flavored vaping devices.

On Town Meeting Day this year, Burlington voters passed a ballot item urging the governor and state lawmakers to pass legislation increasing the sale age of tobacco to 21. It passed 8,152 to 3,554. The vote follows a resolution passed previously by the city council calling tobacco use a “pediatric epidemic.”

Tobacco 21 bills have been introduced in the Vermont Legislature but none have passed yet. H.706, introduced in 2018, proposed to increase the age of purchase in Vermont from 18 to 21. It proposed banning all smoking and use of tobacco substitutes within at least 25 feet of all building entryways, exits, ventilation systems and windows, which would eliminate secondhand smoke and cigarette litter on downtown sidewalks. It would have prohibited the sale of flavored tobacco products, increased taxes on cigarettes and tobacco products, and dedicated 5 percent of the revenue from tobacco taxes to the Tobacco Prevention and Treatment Program.

The main objections to Tobacco 21 legislation include the loss of tax revenue, and the fact that youth can vote, marry and join the military at the age of 18.

However, branches of the military themselves forbid tobacco use in many circumstances including the 10 weeks of basic training boot camp. Rear Admiral John Fuller stated in 2015, “If someone is young enough to fight for their country, they should be free from addiction to a deadly drug. (Being tobacco-free) is one of the best things we can do to improve fitness and readiness.” The Vermont National Guard also stated it would abide by Tobacco 21 legislation if it passed, citing readiness and fitness.

Vermont has other statutes that set age limits of 21. Alcohol and marijuana (when it is legalized on July 1) require age 21. Research on adolescent brain development and health impacts is responsible for this decision. Thirty years of history documents the life-saving impact of the age 21 rule for alcohol. What does your town think about Tobacco 21?

Send feedback to currentprevents@gmail.com.

View archived editions of Current PrEvents at cvndc.org

Ginny Burley is a prevention educator at Central Vermont New Directions Coalition in Montpelier.

Editor’s note: Current PrEvents is produced by the Central Vermont New Directions Coalition in collaboration with the Washington County Youth Service Bureau, as part of the Regional Prevention Partnership grant from the Vermont Department of Health.

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