Rolf Parker: Big changes in the air for Vermont's tobacco laws

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This summer, Vermonters will see three major new pieces of legislation take effect aimed at reducing the number of young people harmed by tobacco and nicotine consumption. The measures, which will begin rolling out in July, not only have been proven to be effective in other states, they are expected to have a "major public health impact for generations to come" in our own state, says Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine.

A brief walkthrough of the new measures: First, all electronic cigarettes will carry a hefty excise tax, like ordinary cigarettes, as of July 1. In the case of e-cigarettes, this means they will be nearly twice as expensive. Second, online sellers will only be allowed to ship nicotine products to Vermonters who have a license to sell them (such as convenience stores). Vermonters without a license will be forbidden to buy these items as of July 1. Third, the age of purchase for all products containing nicotine will be raised to 21 from 18, taking effect on Sept. 1.

All three laws, signed by Gov. Phil Scott, follow recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, which has monitored the effects of similar legislation at the national, state and local levels. Raising the tax on tobacco has repeatedly been shown to reduce the purchase and use of tobacco products by young people. This is why increased taxation was listed as a "Best Practice for Comprehensive Tobacco Control" by the CDC in 2014. In Vermont, there already has been a sizable excise tax on cigarettes — in addition to the sales tax — but no such excise tax on e-cigarettes. The Juul pod, the cartridge used in one of the nation's most popular e-cigarettes, had no excise tax. Vermonters will now see, as of July, a 92 percent excise tax applied to e-cigarettes, which means a pack of Juul pods will rise to about $36 from $19.

While some have objected to the new measures, the statistics on minors' use of tobacco and nicotine products are, at this point, indisputable. The CDC, in its Vital Signs report released in February, reported that nearly 5 percent of middle school students and 20 percent of high school students across the nation had used electronic cigarettes in the previous 30 days. In Vermont, the Department of Health recently reported that 34 percent of high school students have tried vaping and risked getting addicted, based on its latest data from 2017. Juuls, in particular, can be highly addictive, containing as much nicotine as 20 cigarettes.

Nicotine addiction can be considered a harm in and of itself, because it affects the brains of both children and adults who become addicted. They can suffer anxiety, headaches and other serious symptoms. This is why quitting can become extremely difficult. Recent research has also shown the harmful effects of nicotine to the heart, providing yet another reason that parents, health professionals and legislators are increasingly concerned about the number of young people using these products.

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Teachers and principals across the state have reported that some students are coming to school with Juul pods for sale. Ultimately, there are only two sources from which these students could have been directly obtaining them: Juuls available online, where there is often no age verification, and Juuls available in convenience stores to anyone over 17. With Vermont's new comprehensive legislation, both of those access points have largely been closed.

Due to the passage of Vermont's recent legislation, a kid with a computer cannot simply log on to a website such as eBay (which requires no age verification) and buy these products anymore. Until now, even a middle school student — or, sometimes, younger — could access addictive e-cigarette products using nothing more than an internet connection and a gift card purchased with allowance or pocket money.

In 2018, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration identified eBay as a source that minors were using to obtain Juul pods. But the FDA chose to allow the company to take "voluntary measures" to address the problem. A year later, the problem remains. Juul pods are still available for sale on eBay and other sites, with no age verification. This is why state regulation has become essential, and the three measures that Vermont's lawmakers just passed may indeed protect generations of kids to come. (Already, statistics from other states suggest this. For example, in California, where in 2016 the minimum age for buying tobacco products was raised to 21, the state's enforcement division has reported a nearly 50 percent decrease in the number of sales of nicotine products to children under 18.)

Vermont is now joining a growing number of both red and blue states that have moved decisively to raise the legal age in recent years. In addition to California, others include Arkansas, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, Utah, Virginia and Washington. (Also, nearby cities, such as Keene, New Hampshire, have raised the age of purchase to 21, though the state of New Hampshire didn't follow suit.)

What kind of decreases in the number of young people using tobacco and e-cigarettes will we see in Vermont after these three laws come into effect in the same calendar year? Health professionals from many states will be watching closely.

Rolf Parker is the project and program coordinator for Brattleboro Area Prevention Coalition and specializes in tobacco use prevention.


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