Connecticut residents must wait until the age of 21 to buy alcohol, and they may soon face the same wait for cigarettes.
The Connecticut General Assembly’s Public Health Committee is considering a bill that would increase the minimum age to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21 — making the state the first in the country to adopt such a standard. The legislation, lauded by anti-smoking activists but publicly criticized by at least one tobacco company, was proposed by a Connecticut teenager this week and has already received support from the co-chair of the state’s Public Health Committee.
Members of the Public Health Committee heard testimony Monday on the bill, which would make Connecticut even stricter than the four states — Alabama, Alaska, New Jersey and Utah — that already restrict tobacco sales to those over 19 years of age. The idea for such a restriction came from 17-year-old Hebron resident Jessica Adelson, who won an essay contest about how to best change the world and turned her winning idea into a bill for the General Assembly to consider.
“By increasing the age, we can stop many young people from getting their hands on cigarettes,” Adelson said at Monday’s hearing. “Why are we allowing our youth of Connecticut to start such a nasty habit at such a young and vulnerable age?”
The age increase would make it harder for most teenagers to grow addicted to cigarettes, she told lawmakers, as most teens that smoke acquire their cigarettes from friends who have just turned 18. If the minimum age to buy tobacco products were increased to 21, younger teens would not be able to turn to their 18-year-old friends for cigarettes, she said.
It remains to be seen whether such a law will be politically feasible, said State Sen. Mary Ann Handley, Democrat of Manchester and co-chair of the Public Health Committee. The committee’s leadership is meeting this morning and discuss which bills it will proceed with, Handley said, and the legislation will likely be discussed at that time.
Handley said because Monday’s public hearing lasted for about 10 hours, legislators did not discuss the bills much afterward and therefore she could not judge how most committee members felt about the proposal. At least one cigarette maker, the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., has publicly criticized the legislation in media reports, saying if 18-year-olds can go off to war, they should also be able to buy cigarettes.
But Handley said she found Adelson’s testimony very convincing and would support the bill.
“I feel very persuaded that it makes a good argument to get cigarettes out of the hands of 18-year-olds so that middle teenage group doesn’t get addicted,” she said. “[Today] I’ll see whether I have any friends who agree with me.”
The Connecticut law would be a big step toward reducing tobacco addiction, said Patrick Reynolds, founder of the Foundation for a Smokefree America and the grandson of tobacco magnate R.J. Reynolds. Many teens turn to cigarettes as a way of declaring independence from their parents and do not realize the risks associated with addiction, he said.
Compared to the number of people who start smoking in their teens and become addicted, far fewer people would be apt to pick up smoking in their 20s, Reynolds said, making the proposed 21-year-old cutoff an effective measure in warding off addiction.
“Once they reach 21, it’s no longer an interesting vehicle for rebellion,” he said. “I just don’t know why more states haven’t done it.”
Nearly all states, including Connecticut, allow cigarette sales to those 18 or older. About 45 million Americans are regular smokers, and 90 percent of them began smoking before the age of 21, according to the American Lung Association.
—The Associated Press contributed reporting.