MONTPELIER — House lawmakers have given preliminary approval to a bill that would raise the smoking age from 18 to 21.
The House voted Tuesday to approve a bill that gradually raises the age someone can buy, possess and use all forms of tobacco during the next three years, and would increase taxes on tobacco products to compensate for lost state revenue.
“Our hope is this will help move Vermont to a culture of healthier youth, less government spending and a brighter future,” said Rep. Michael Mrowicki, D-Putney, one of 16 co-sponsors of the bill.
Under the terms of the bill, the age to purchase, possess and use tobacco would rise from 18 to 19, beginning Jan. 1, 2017. The legal age would rise to 20 in 2018, and to 21 in 2019.
Rep. George Till, D- Jericho — who is the lead sponsor of the sponsor and who serves on the House Ways and Means Committee — noted that raising the smoking age will result in fewer tobacco sales and, therefore, less tax revenue for the state.
According to the Joint Fiscal Office, raising the smoking age is expected to cost the state $2.7 million in tax revenue over four years.
To compensate for the potential lost revenue, House lawmakers included an amendment to the bill that would raise taxes on all tobacco products, resulting — in theory — in no net loss in revenue for the state.
Currently, the tax on a pack of cigarettes is $3.08; under the terms of the bill, the tax would increase to $3.21 in 2017, $3.34 in 2018 and $3.47 in 2019.
The bill would also raise taxes on other tobacco products — such as snuff or roll-your-own — that are taxed by weight. Currently, the tax rate is $2.57 and ounce. That rate would increase to $2.68 in 2017, $2.78 in 2018 and $2.89 in 2019.
Rep. Ron Hubert, R-Milton — who owns and operates the Middle Road Market in his home town — expressed skepticism that the increase in tobacco tax rates has anything to do with public health.
“This tax is not for health reasons. This is just another money grab,” Hubert said. “This is not a health bill, but just another tax and an anti-business bill. We prove every day we do not want small businesses in Vermont.”
Rep. David Deen, D-Putney, argued Vermont residents are free not to pay a tobacco tax.
“This is a self-imposed tax,” Deen said. “If you don’t want to pay the tax, don’t smoke,” Deen said.
The amendment passed, 75 to 68.
“We were very disappointed to see they once again raised taxes, which does nothing more than send people across the border and make New Hampshire a shopper’s paradise,” said Jim Harrison, executive director of the Vermont Retail & Grocers Association.
Harrison said his association would have preferred to see an increase in the age for the region, which would reduce people crossing state borders to shop. He also said he would have preferred if the age was raised to 21 immediately, which he said would be much easier for store clerks.
Rep. Robert Helm, R-Fair Haven, introduced an amendment to exempt members of the military from the age increases.
“When I got home, nobody was going to tell me I wasn’t going to have a cigarette,” said Helm, who was injured during his service with the United States Marine Corps.
House lawmakers defeated Helm’s amendment, 72 to 70.
Lawmakers did approve an amendment from Rep. Kurt Wright, R-Burlington, that increases the fine for an underage person who tries to purchase tobacco from $25 to $200.
Overall, the percentage of Vermont adults who smoke has fallen significantly over the past two years, from 18 percent in 2014 to 11 percent in 2015, according to the state Department of Health.
Youth consumption has also declined slightly, according to the Vermont Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Eleven percent of high school students reported smoking within the last 30 days in 2015, a slight decrease from 13 percent reported in 2013, according to the survey.
According to Gov. Peter Shumlin’s spokesman Scott Coriell, the governor opposes raising the smoking age, saying that while the governor does not support smoking, he does support the right of 18-year-olds to make their own decisions.
House lawmakers are expected to to take a final vote on the bill today.