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Lawmakers consider raising smoking age from 18 to 21

HARTFORD, Conn. --Some lawmakers want young people in Connecticut to wait a few more years before they can legally buy cigarettes.

The legislature's Public Health Committee heard testimony Monday about a proposal to raise the legal age for purchasing tobacco products from 18 to 21.

If the bill passes, Connecticut would have the highest age requirement in the nation for buying cigarettes and other tobacco products. The legal age in most states is 18, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. It's 19 in Alabama, Alaska and Utah, as well as some counties.

"By increasing the age, we can stop many young people from getting their hands on cigarettes," said Jessica Adelson, 17, of Hebron, who proposed the bill as part of an essay contest about how to change the world.

Almost 90 percent of cigarette smokers started at or before age 18, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

"Why are we allowing our youth of Connecticut to start such a nasty habit at such a young and vulnerable age?" Adelson asked.

She told lawmakers Monday that increasing the legal age for tobacco sales will make it difficult for younger teens, such as 16-year-olds, to get cigarettes. Younger teens, she said, typically know a lot more 18-year-olds than 21-year-olds who might buy them cigarettes.

But it's unclear whether higher age requirements for buying tobacco lead to fewer young smokers.

In Alabama, where the smoking age is 19, 24.4 percent of high school students smoke, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. That's compared with the national average of 23 percent.

In Utah, 7.4 percent of high school students smoke, while that number is 19.2 percent in Alaska.

In Connecticut, 18.1 percent of high school students -- about 35,800 -- smoke, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

"Anything that legislators can do to make it more difficult for kids to start smoking is a good thing, but beyond that, it's not clear whether there's any real hard evidence to support the idea that raising the age for being able to buy tobacco products has any real effect on keeping kids away from tobacco," said Joel Spivak, assistant director of media relations for Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. "If it does, we're all for it."

John Singleton, a spokesman for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., one of the nation's leading cigarette manufacturers, questioned the effectiveness of the legislation. He also said it is unfair to 18-year-olds who can defend the nation in war, vote, serve on a jury, marry, donate their organs and write up a will.

"To say that they can't buy a pack of cigarettes seems a little inconsistent from our viewpoint," he said.

New York City officials last year discussed raising the city's smoking age from 18 to 21 as a way to further reduce smoking. Last month, a Texas state senator filed a bill that would raise the minimum age to use or buy cigarettes and other tobacco products from 18 to 19.

A similar bill increasing the age to 19 was proposed in Onondaga County, N.Y., but the county executive vetoed the legislation last month because it did not exempt young people in the military or provide funding for enforcement.

Meanwhile, British officials have debated raising the smoking age there from 16 to 18.