Bill hikes Colorado tobacco age to 21

DENVER — Anyone under the age of 21 no longer would be able to smoke cigarettes under a bill to be introduced into the Colorado Legislature in the coming weeks.

The bill, which is to be introduced by Republicans and Democrats, would raise the legal age to use any tobacco product from 18 to 21, putting it in line with other legal vices, such as alcohol and marijuana.

Sen. Steve King, one of four sponsors of the measure, said that’s the way it should be.

“It offers consistency in the law,” the Grand Junction Republican said. “Gambling’s 21, alcohol is 21, marijuana is 21. It seems to me that those potentially addictive behaviors ... we should have good consistent policies about regulating that behavior.”

Last year, New York City and Hawaii County, also known as the Big Island, became the first in the nation to raise the tobacco-use age to 21.

Meanwhile, legislatures in at least three other states, Utah, Vermont and Maryland, already have introduced similar measures. Lawmakers in Texas, Hawaii, New Jersey, Oregon, New York and Washington, D.C., also are considering the idea.

All but four states have set the age at 18 to be in line with federal law. Those four other states — Utah, Alabama, Alaska and New Jersey — have raised it to 19, said Jodi Radke, regional director of the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids.

“Kids of that age, and they are kids, their brains aren’t fully developed yet, so they become much more addicted to tobacco than adults,” Radke said. “As a result, they have a much harder time quitting, even years later when they become adults.”

Radke, whose group is pushing the effort nationwide, said research backs that up.

“Compared with adults, adolescents appear to display evidence of nicotine addiction at much lower levels of consumption, making quit attempts potentially more difficult for them,” according to the 2012 U.S. surgeon general’s report. “Many young smokers have strong expectations of discontinuing use in the near future, but relatively few are able to do so.”

Though no opponents have lined up against the idea in Colorado yet, opposition in other states has come from retail stores and personal-choice advocates, many of whom say 18-year-olds are adult enough to vote and serve in the armed forces, but aren’t allowed to do what other adults can do.

“I get the argument that I can risk my life, but I can’t have beer; I can risk my life, but I can’t gamble; I can risk my life, but I can’t smoke marijuana,” King said. “I get that it’s hard for some people to consider, but we have made a case from a health standpoint of tobacco than any other vice that this isn’t good for you. It can kill you.”

Convenience stores also argue that raising the age will dramatically cut into tobacco sales.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 17.6 percent of all Coloradans use a tobacco product on a regular basis, but the percentage increases for younger people — 22 percent for smokers age 18 to 24.

Radke said her group’s polling in the state shows that 55 percent of Coloradans would favor raising the age, and it isn’t a partisan issue.

That’s why the bill has sponsors from both sides of the aisle, she said. It is to be introduced in the House by Reps. Beth McCann, D-Denver, and Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen.

If it passes there, King and Sen. John Kefalas, D-Fort Collins, are to jointly sponsor it in the Senate.

Though the bill still is in its drafting stage, it is expected to be phased in to impact only Coloradans who haven’t yet turned 18. It is expected to be similar to the measure now working its way through the Utah legislature, which applies to all tobacco and nicotine products, including electronic cigarettes, chewing tobacco, cigars, nicotine patches and pipes.

Currently, the fine for being an underaged smoker is $100. The fine for supplying an underaged person with a tobacco product is $200, but the fine can go as high as $1,500 for retail stores that repeatedly violate the underage law and sell to minors.


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