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.
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.