Burlington City Council approves ballot measure on raising the age

BURLINGTON, Vt. - The Burlington city council decided in a 9-3 vote Monday to put an item on the Town Meeting Day ballot about raising the legal age to buy tobacco.

The item would ask voters whether they want to recommend the state legislature raise the minimum age from 18 to 21.

The House passed the bill in 2016. It failed last session in the Senate.

"I have friends dying of lung cancer,” said Judith Madison, who supports raising the age. “Anything you can do to stop young people from starting the habit is great."

Five states have already raised the tobacco age to 21: Hawaii, New Jersey, Maine, Oregon and California.

“Everyone that I know who's under 21, they still have access to the cigarettes. It's not that hard to do,” said Brandon Choe, a Middlebury College student from California. “I'm sure it will get less people to start but for those who want to do it, I don't think this law will stop them."

“The freedom to smoke is the freedom to play Russian Roulette,” said Dr. Prospero Gogo, an interventional cardiologist at the University of Vermont Medical Center. "We had four heart attacks between 1am on Saturday and 4pm on Sunday. Three of those four were patients who started smoking in their late teens."

In June, Dr. Gogo proposed the ballot item idea to the council during a public input session.

“Even though we consider 18 the age of reason in voting, unfortunately that's still a time of significant change in our brain,” he said. “Our brains are much more susceptible to addiction at those age points."

According to the councilors who sponsored the resolution, Chip Mason (D) , Karen Paul (D), Adam Roof (I), Joan Shannon (D), Richard Deane (D) and Kurt Wright (R), ninety percent of tobacco addicts started smoking before they turned 21 years old.

"I have trouble with us telling adults what they can do,” said Sen. Chris Pearson (P/D - Chittenden District), who lives in Burlington.

Sen. Pearson voted against raising the age last session.

“People should not be smoking cigarettes. Banning them and making it a crime to possess and hold cigarettes when you're 20 years old doesn't seem like a top priority for me,” said Sen. Pearson, who also supports lowering the legal drinking age to 18.

One of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Ginny Lyons (D - Chittenden District), says she hasn’t heard about the senate Health & Welfare Committee taking the bill up again. “But there’s always the possibility,” she added.

Senate President pro tempore Tim Ashe, who voted against raising the age, said he takes into account advisory ballot items.

“I consider it strongly along with the other sources of information we utilize as we consider legislation. A ballot question gives a broad sense of how people feel about an issue, though at times the questions can be oversimplified in order to be more accessible to voters who may not have thought much about a particular issue,” he said in a statement.

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