Senate rejects raising the legal age for tobacco products

MONTPELIER — The Vermont Senate rejected legislation Tuesday that would have raised the legal smoking age from 18 to 21.

The legislation, S.88, was sidelined by its supporters several weeks ago when it became apparent that it lacked the votes to pass the chamber. But Senate Health and Welfare Committee Chairwoman Claire Ayer, D-Addison, brought the bill back to the floor Tuesday where it was defeated on a 13 to 16 vote.

Sen. Claire Ayer

Ayer said before the vote that she thought it was “possible” it would pass, but interest groups seeking to raise the legal age to purchase and possess tobacco products to 21 said it still lacked the votes. Ayer, and Sen. Debbie Ingram, D-Chittenden, a strong proponent of the bill, said they were willing to risk its defeat.

“We had nothing to do with it. We assumed that it was going to go back to committee,” Jill Sudhoff-Guerin, director of government relations for the American Cancer Society, said after the vote. “We knew that the vote count was pretty much stuck there this year and we wanted to take some time. We really were just trying to support the chair.

Sudhoff-Guerin said Ayer was looking to point out the “irony” of senators voting in favor of legalizing marijuana for people 21 and older but not raising the legal age for tobacco to the same age.

“I think she was trying to bring up the health around that and she thought if people could support the marijuana bill they should support her bill,” Sudhoff-Guerin said.

Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, was the only senator to change positions. White, who was previously against the legislation, said the experiences of her own family members swayed her. She said her sister has been hospitalized with a serious case of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease after starting smoking at a young age.

Ingram proposed an amendment to the bill aimed at making it more palatable to senators who opposed it before it was defeated. The amendment removed all penalties for those under 21 who are found to be in possession of tobacco products. It also clarified that people already 18 when the law would take effect would be allowed to continue to legally purchase and possess tobacco products.

“We wouldn’t just take it away from them overnight. It would be grandfathered in,” Ingram said.

She urged her colleagues to support the bill because it would help Vermonters remain healthy.

Sen. Debbie Ingram

“It will save the lives (of people) who do not become addicted. Also, we have a huge problem with pregnant teens who smoke,” Ingram said. “This would save the lives and improve the health of those who are not yet born, as well.”

Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, said he opposed the bill because it took a right away from Vermonters.

“There is nothing more threatening to individual liberty than the concept of passing legislation which will protect us from ourselves,” he said.

Ayer said the bill is the type of legislation she does not like to vote on because it restricts Vermonters’ choices. But she defended it, saying the state has passed other measures related to health and safety, including requiring the use of seatbelts

“We’ve done a lot of things to help people make choices,” Ayer said. “This is another effort to do that sort of thing.”

With its defeat on the floor Tuesday, the Senate cannot consider the issue again during the current legislative biennium, which includes the 2018 legislative session. Similar legislation could originate in the House, however, and still have a chance to become law.

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