Bill Being Pushed to Raise Minimum Age to 21 to Purchase Cigarettes or Tobacco Products in Colorado

DENVER — A bill to increase the age of young adults purchasing cigarettes or tobacco products from 18 to 21 seems to make sense considering the documented dangers of tobacco.

But it’s not as black and white as it appears.

Opponents of the bill say someone 18 or 19 who fights in a war, votes or serves on a jury to decide someone’s future should have the right to smoke a cigarette or take a dip of smokeless tobacco.

Proponents of the bill say that research shows that tobacco products and cigarettes are highly addictive to people that age, it’s costing the state up to $1 billion per year in related health-care costs for tobacco use and that the smoking age should be the same as the 21 years of age required for purchasing recreational marijuana and alcohol or gambling.

Colorado House Bill 1263 is a bipartisan bill — sponsored by Reps. Beth McCann, D-Denver, and Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, and Sens. John Kefalas, D-Fort Collins, and Steve King, R-Grand Junction — that would prohibit anyone from giving, selling, distributing or offering for sale cigarettes or tobacco products, such as chewing tobacco and cigars, to anyone under the age of 21.

The bill would prohibit anyone under 21 from purchasing or possessing cigarettes or tobacco products. The bill would make an exception for anyone who was born on or before June 30, 1996.

Jodi Radke of Loveland, the director for Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids that covers 10 states in the Rocky Mountain/Great Plains Region, said the organization she works for is the lead agency working on the legislation.

The Health Insurance and Environment Committee hearing on the bill is scheduled for Thursday.

If it comes back with a majority yes vote from the committee, the bill will then be sent to the House floor for debate.

Radke said Utah, Alaska, Alabama and New Jersey have age limits for tobacco transactions at 19. No states have the age limit set at 21, but she said New York City and the Big Island of Hawaii, along with numerous communities in Massachusetts, have made the age limit 21. She said Utah and Maryland are working on similar legislation to raise the age to 21.

Radke said Needham, Mass., was the first town in the U.S. nine years ago to pass a 21 years of age requirement regarding tobacco purchases, and the town’s youth use rates have decreased.

“Our large question is why is marijuana and alcohol and gambling 21, and yet tobacco somehow gets preferential treatment by being 18?” Radke said. “One thing that concerns us is that in the state of Colorado, nearly 19,000 kids under 18 try cigarettes for the first time each year.”

Two local state legislators — Rep. Steve Humphrey, R-Severance, and Rep. Dave Young, D-Greeley — admitted that they don’t know how they’ll vote on the bill if it goes to the House floor, although Humphrey said he’s leaning toward voting against the bill.

“I kind of struggle with that. I’m not crazy about kids smoking cigarettes and all that kind of thing, but on the other hand I’ve been in the military and if you’re old enough to serve your country, you’re old enough to smoke,” Humphrey said. “I’m interested in hearing the testimony, but I tend to default on the individual rights side of it and at 18 you’re an adult. I’m not sure that I’m ready to say that I support it yet. My inclination is to say let’s leave it the way it is and keep educating people about how unhealthy it is.”

Young, who is also proposing a bill to prohibit nicotine products, such as e-cigarettes, for those under the age of 18, said he’s on the fence regarding the bill.

“I haven’t made a decision yet,” Young said. “There are a lot of things that we empower people 18 and older to do. You can join the military and defend this country when you’re 18. You can vote when you’re 18. I’m torn about the fact that we’re not allowing them to make the decision to smoke or not. It’s a tough one for me. I prefer that no one would. We know that the health impacts from smoking are terrible, and the research is conclusive.”

Frank Fronek of Greeley, a former chairman for the Weld County Tobacco-Free coalition who wrote the ordinance to ban public smoking in Greeley in 2003, hopes the bill passes.

“I think it’s a good thing to pursue, but it’s going to be tough to get through,” Fronek said. “Young kids smoking is not good for their health. If you want the health of a person to be No. 1, it should be 21.”

Summer Joseph, a junior at Union Colony who is active in the anti-tobacco coalition in Greeley, said the bill is important because a lot of people begin smoking when they’re teenagers.

“A lot of my family members have been affected by smoking. A lot of them have died or have had serious illnesses,” Joseph said. “I don’t like sitting next to kids in classes that smell like smoke. I don’t like seeing kids ruin their lives that young.”

Radke said the reason that substances happen to have the age restrictions that they do is because the adolescent brain hasn’t developed at that age level.

“They become addicted more quickly, their brain is much more susceptible to nicotine addiction and if they’re choosing to quit after a year or two their brain is far less receptive to nicotine replacement therapy to help them do that,” Radke said. “Ninety-five percent of those who currently use tobacco start before the age of 21. This is really a strategy that has been demonstrated to decrease youth use rates.

“A lot of these kids are 18 year olds that are currently seniors in high school and they’re in situations where they are surrounded by their younger peers and sharing those products with those who are not legally of age to be purchasing those products.”

Radke said the organization’s main opposition are the convenience stores and tobacco companies.

“They want 18 to 21 year olds to smoke, because they know if they can addict kids at a very young age the likelihood they will be heavy and lifetime smokers is exponentially higher,” Radke said. “We work to keep kids from using, and they want kids to use because they need to addict future generations of lifetime smokers to maintain their bottom line.”