MONTPELIER >>After impassioned debate stretching over two days, the Vermont House on Wednesday passed a bill to increase the state's age for buying tobacco products from 18 to 21 over the next three years and to raise the tobacco tax.
The bill exempts active-duty members of the military and wounded veterans, allowing them to continue using tobacco if they are 18 or older. It offsets an anticipated loss in revenue from no longer selling tobacco to 18- to 20-year-olds by increasing the tax on a pack of cigarettes 13 cents a year, ending at $3.47 in 2019.
"Make no mistake, H.93 is a health bill," said Rep. George Till, D-Jericho, who divides his time between his work as a legislator and an obstetrician-gynecologist. "Right now alive in Vermont, according to the CDC (federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), there are 31,500 kids who will become addicted to tobacco. Ten thousand of those kids will die a premature death due to tobacco. H.93 could reduce this number by half."
Hawaii sets the age for buying tobacco at 21 and California recently passed a law to do the same. Vermont's measure could still face a tough road. It appears to face doubts among senators, and Gov. Peter Shumlin said through a spokesman he does not support the measure.
Till led the charge in the House, telling his colleagues that discouraging young people from beginning to use tobacco during their teen years reduces the chances that they will ever do so. The change eventually would significantly reduce the $348 million a year Vermont spends on tobacco-related health problems, $87 million of that in Medicaid dollars, he said.
Much of the debate centered around an amendment offered by Rep. Robert Helm, R-Fair Haven, to allow military members to continue to be able to use tobacco starting at 18. The amendment passed, with support from, among others, Rep. Curt McCormack, D-Burlington.
"To me, this amendment is not about smoking; this amendment is about respect, and morale in the military," McCormack said. He argued that for military personnel to be allowed to enlist at 18, or perhaps once again to be drafted at that age, "It's outrageous to treat them as younger than adults."
Rep. Ron Hubert, R-Milton and a convenience store owner, said the whole package of raising the age for using tobacco and raising taxes on those who do was "anti-business."
That was not enough to sway the majority, which supported the bill on a voice vote.