MONTPELIER — A House committee Tuesday emphatically rejected legislation to raise the age for buying tobacco products from 18 to 21.
The House Human Services Committee took the action after state Health Commissioner Dr. Harry Chen said he opposed the legislation because people age 18 and older are legally adults and should have the freedom to smoke.
“I think we all share the goal of reducing our smoking rate, especially our smoking rate among young Vermonters,” Chen said.
But he argued that people under 21 but over 18 are adults, and that the government should be slow to restrict the freedoms of adults by “compelling or prohibiting behavior.”
Committee members complained they were forced to consider bills they earlier had decided not to take up this year because of a promise made by the House Democratic leadership to Rep. George Till, D-Jericho.
In late February, Till had tried to amend a bill seeking to reduce exposure to secondhand smoke. The amendment would have raised the age for buying tobacco products.
He agreed to withdraw that amendment after a promise from Majority Leader Willem Jewett and Rep. Ann Pugh, chairwoman of the Human Services Committee, that the committee would take up the age increase in separate legislation.
Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield, said there was not enough time left in the legislative session, which is due to wrap up in early May, to consider what she called a “major policy change.” Friday is the last day for getting most bills out of their committee of origin, a deadline lawmakers call cross-over.
“I don’t think we can give it fair shrift in cross-over week,” Donahue said. “I think being forced to do that from on high is pretty outrageous.”
The committee discussed the legislation for less than an hour before Rep. Matt Trieber, D-Rockingham, made motions to reject two versions of the age increase, one of which would have exempted members of the military. The motion to reject the measure without the military exemption was approved 10-1; the motion to reject the version with the military exemption was passed 11-0.
Trieber said he opposed raising the age for buying tobacco products but added that he could be persuaded to change his mind after hearing more committee testimony showing there was scientific data supporting such a move.
Till said he was disappointed. He said New York City, which will implement an age of 21 to buy tobacco in May, projected a 67 percent reduction in 14- to 17-year-old smokers, with a 55 percent reduction among 18- to 20-year-olds.
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