A legislative panel resoundingly rejected legislation on Tuesday that would have increased the minimum age for buying tobacco products from 18 to 21.
The House Human Services Committee voted 10-1 and 11-0 to kill two related proposals, the first would have raised the minimum age, the other would have exempted military personnel from the age limit.
The committee took testimony from the Vermont Grocers Association, the Vermont Department of Health and the Vermont State Colleges.
Rep. Ann Pugh, D-S. Burlington, said raising the minimum age for purchasing cigarettes is not one of the strategies recommended by the Centers for Disease Control. Secondhand smoke is a much more serious issue, she said.
"When the tobacco control advocates and the commissioner of health all of whom share a strong sense of the importance of limiting tobacco use and secondhand smoke say this is not a strategy to get the results we want at this time, then we have to pay attention," Pugh said.
Dr. Harry Chen, the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Health, testified against the proposal. Chen told WPTZ: "We know it's the No. 1 controllable cause of death but that said, I think 18-year-olds are adults and if we're going to prohibit or compel behavior in adults I think there has to be a really good reason behind it."
Given the Shumlin administration's resistance to the idea, Rep. George Till, a key sponsor of H.605, said he was not surprised that lawmakers voted down the proposal.
Till, who is an obstetrician, says raising the age limit would have a huge impact on public health at a time when the state's efforts to curb smoking among teens is losing momentum.
Ninety percent of smokers start the habit before the age of 21, he said. Seventy-five percent of smokers who begin lighting up as teenagers smoke for the rest of their lives, Till said.
Eighteen-year-olds often buy cigarettes for younger teens, according to Till. A higher age limit for purchasing cigarettes could cut smoking down among 13- to 17-year-olds by more than 50 percent.
"Getting young people to smoke is the lifeblood of the tobacco industry," Till said.
The state spends about $200 million in Medicaid dollars on smoking related diseases, he said. Raising the age limit would "really reduce the burden of the disease," on public health, in his view.
Tom Kavet, the economic adviser for the Legislature, testified that the state could lose about $2.3 million in tax revenues if the state adopted an age limit of 21.