CONCORD — Three young women from the Seacoast area who led last year’s effort to raise the legal smoking age in New Hampshire from 18 to 21 were back in Concord on Thursday, hoping for a different outcome this time around.
Last year’s bill was tabled in the Senate and never even got to the House for a vote.
High school students Hanna Martuscello, Elsa Rogers and Caitlin Temple are a year older and perhaps a little wiser in the ways of the New Hampshire legislature, but no less determined to succeed.
The members of Dover Youth-2-Youth were among several speakers to testify before the Senate Commerce Committee as it considered Senate Bill 248, sponsored by state Sen. David Watters, D-Dover.
“Most of the people that you see testifying or speaking out against this bill are people over the age of 21 who aren’t directly affected by the issue,” said Martuscello, “while we as youth see the effects these products have on our peers on a daily basis.”
She described an epidemic of newly addicted teens, most of whom are drawn to nicotine through vaping or Juuling, named for the most popular vaping products marketed by Juul Labs, an electronic cigarette company.
“This is such a terrible problem in middle school that our dean has a drawer full of these Juul devices,” said Rogers, a 9th-grader in Dover.
She held up a Juul cartridge that had been on a table in front of her, saying it was unlikely that any committee member would have recognized it as a smoking device.
“If you or anyone else in the room were unable to notice it, imagine how hard it is for teachers with 25 desks in front of them to put a stop to someone using it,” she said.
“By increasing the age to 21, this will not only help the administration regulate usage in the schools, but prevent them from even entering the hands of young people.”
Issue is sales
Watters explained that the purpose of the bill is to address the sale of tobacco products, not underage possession.
“It’s not the intent or desire of police to stop youth on the street who do not look like they are 21 but have a smoking device,” he said.
The law would apply to all tobacco or nicotine products, except those approved for the FDA to assist people trying to kick the habit. It would ban mail-order delivery to anyone who could not produce proof of age, and would require school districts to develop a policy regulating the use of vaping devices.
Dover and Keene have already passed so-called Tobacco 21 ordinances, and were joined by Newmarket on Wednesday. Nashua and Plymouth are considering similar measures. If the bill becomes law, New Hampshire would join Massachusetts, Maine, New Jersey, Oregon, California and Hawaii.
“It’s a question of when, not if, we are going to go to tobacco 21,” said Watters, “so the only question is how many people are we going to set on a path of disease and death by further delay.”
A representative of the N.H. Vapors Association and New England Vapor Technology Association testified against the bill, describing vapor devices as a helping many tobacco smokers quit.
“I am a Nashua resident for over 20 years, and I own a retail vape store in Hudson,” said Victor Vitale, “and thanks to vapor products, I am also a former smoker.”
He pointed out that the liquid nicotine used in vaping products is not the same as the tobacco in cigarettes.
“At the end of the day and above all else, these people are not minors. They have rights, and we need to respect those rights,” he said.
Jon Shaer, executive director of the New England Convenience Store and Energy Marketers Association, said his group is neutral on the proposal, but warned lawmakers to take into account the financial impact on 900 convenience stores in New Hampshire and the state’s receipts from tobacco taxes.
“This is not a revenue-neutral measure,” he said. “If it is determined that the minimum legal smoking age should increase as a matter of public health, we would expect the legislature will take steps to offset the expected economic impact for state government and local businesses alike.”
He urged the committee to have the Department of Revenue Administration conduct a comprehensive fiscal analysis of the bill before voting, and suggested the state do a better job appropriating money it receives from tobacco taxes and a national settlement with tobacco companies.
“Shamefully, despite collecting more than $254 million in tobacco-related revenue, New Hampshire only contributes $140,000 toward tobacco control programs,” he said. “Perhaps a rational first step to reducing use among minors is to put real money into prevention and cessation programs rather than restricting sales to adults.”