Portland weighs raising age to buy tobacco products

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PORTLAND — The legal age to buy tobacco products in the city will increase from 18 to 21 if Councilor Ed Suslovic has his way.

“I’m curious to see where the opposition might come from,” Suslovic said April 8. “From a public health standpoint, it is a no-brainer.”

An amendment to increase the age has not yet been proposed. But the City Council Health & Human Services Committee, with Suslovic as chairman, discussed moving ahead in a workshop Tuesday.

To draft an ordinance amendment, the committee will need a referral from the full council.

The committee workshop came almost a year after councilors added electronic cigarettes and vaporizers to the list of tobacco products covered by the city ordinance, and about three years after tobacco use was banned on city property, including parks and beaches.

Suslovic said increasing the age for sales is another step in the process of keeping teenagers from developing tobacco addiction.

“We know 18-year-olds are still in high school. We know if an 18-year-old can get it, a 17-year-old may be able to get it,” Suslovic said.

If city councilors increase the age, Portland would join about 140 cities in 10 states, including Boston, New York, Cleveland and San Francisco, that have enacted higher minimum age rules since 2005, according to tobacco21.org.

Nationally, the rate of tobacco use among high school and middle school students is near an all-time low. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, one in 15 high school seniors, or 7 percent, reported smoking daily in 2014. The rate was 29 percent 40 years ago.

According to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nine of every 100 high school students in 2014 said they smoked at least once in the last 30 days. For middle schoolers, it was three of every 100.

According to the CDC, use of smokeless tobacco, hookahs and electronic cigarettes was increasing, although overall use of all kinds of tobacco products had decreased from 46 of every 100 high school students to 25 of every 100, and from 18 of every 100 middle schoolers to eight of every 100.

In Maine, the youth smoking rates are higher than the national average, approaching 13 percent, based on the CDC National Youth Risk Behavior Survey. The CDC also estimates a 9.5 percent rate of use for smokeless tobacco products by males in high school, and that 1,000 youth under 18 become smokers annually.

“All you have to do is look at the advertising to know (tobacco companies) are targeting a youth market,” Suslovic said.

But increasing the age from 18 to 21 does not seem like an effective move to R.J. Ramen, who works at Lucky Juju Headshop, 28 Market St.

“I feel it is pointless. It will do nothing but increase the people who will bend the rules,” he said.

Ramen said vaporizers and electronic cigarettes are attracting 18-year-olds, but attributed that to distrust of tobacco companies and additives in cigarettes, as well as the difference between smoking and inhaling and exhaling vapors.

Portland High School sophomore Maranda Beeler said she supports increasing the age, and said she has never understood why the age to buy alcohol is higher than it is to buy tobacco products.

Although she is not a tobacco user, Beeler said it is not difficult for teenagers to get tobacco products, and she is often asked if she has cigarettes.

Derek Hemond was smoking a cigarette on Market Street when he said he disagrees with having the legal age at 21 for both tobacco and alcohol.

“If the federal government thinks you are old enough to fight for your  country when you are 18, you should be able to smoke and have a drink,” Hemond said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

R.J. Ramen, who works at Lucky Juju Headshop on Market Street in Portland, said Monday he doubts raising the age to buy tobacco products will prevent teenagers from obtaining tobacco products.

When approached Monday on Market Street, city resident Derek Hemond said he opposes raising the minimum age to buy tobacco to 21, and believes anyone old enough to fight for their country should be allowed to buy tobacco products.


Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.

  • Chew H Bird

    Insanity. Either a person is an adult or not. It really is that simple. How about a single national age of being an adult at age 19 because most people are out of high school, colleges generally have separate freshman dorms, and the age is low enough so any draft is not negatively impacted? This would reduce the regulatory costs associated with different adult ages for different choice. At 19 people could marry without parental approval, drink, smoke, gamble, (and suffer from other adult vices of their choosing).

    The very last thing Portland needs to do is raise the smoking age to the point where underage people (who may well be doing other adult activities) get in a car to drive across the bridge to South Portland or Falmouth to buy a pack of smokes… Suppose a 20 year old person who has been illegally drinking drives to another town to buy smokes? Would that other town be deemed an “attractive nuisance”? Would Portland share some responsibility for creating legislation that might encourage the bad behavior of driving while intoxicated? This concept of raising the smoking age, (despite the good and healthy intentions), has “bad move” written all over it.

  • charlie

    Where laws exist banning possession of tobacco by minors they are not enforced, not ever, not anywhere. Everybody knows that Raising the age to buy without enforcing the possession law is for the purpose of adding a restriction on possession of ecigs. A ban on minors possessing electronic cigarettes WILL be enforced while possession of tobacco by kids continues to be ignored. The message the kids will get is it’s okay to smoke, not okay to vape. Police are tax supported. Smokers pay big taxes. If all the smokers switch to vaping there will be layoffs. Police have to make sure there is money to make their payroll.