DENVER – A bipartisan group of Colorado lawmakers says the state that made national news for being the first to allow marijuana sales should make headlines again by being the first to ban teen smoking.
They’re backing a proposal likely to be introduced next week that would raise the tobacco age limit from 18 to 21. The bill would apply to cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, electronic cigarettes and tobacco vaporizers.
“You have to (be) 21 to gamble. You have to be 21 to drink. You have to be 21 to smoke marijuana. Why are we not consistent about tobacco?” said Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, one of the bill’s sponsors.
Several other states are considering similar legislation, but none have acted yet. A handful of states set the smoking age at 19.
King has allies among powerful Democrats who say Colorado would send a strong message by regulating tobacco with the same age limit as alcohol and marijuana.
“Tobacco is equally as harmful, really, and maybe more so,” said Rep. Beth McCann, a Denver Democrat who leads the House Health, Insurance, and Environment Committee, who plans to sign the bill as a co-sponsor.
The bill could set off a hot debate. Opposition will likely be as bipartisan as the support, and presiding officers in the Legislature and governor’s office haven’t mentioned tobacco as a priority.
“If we have our military at age 18, they should be able to smoke. They’re old enough,” said Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins.
People who are currently between the ages of 18 and 20 would be grandfathered in, meaning the measure wouldn’t be fully implemented until today’s 17-year-olds are 21. “We don’t want to cut ’em off cold turkey,” McCann said.
It’s not clear how many of Colorado’s current smokers are younger than 21. However, a paper published last year in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine said 9 out of 10 daily smokers have their first cigarette by 18 years of age, and about 90 percent of cigarettes purchased for minors are obtained by people between 18 and 20 years old.
There hasn’t been a legislative budget analysis, so it’s too soon to say whether the change would cost Colorado lost tobacco-tax revenue or add to state-tax receipts through increased fines. Colorado taxes cigarettes 84 cents a pack, below the national average of $1.53 a pack, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
Just outside the Capitol, a group of smokers waiting for a bus on a recent afternoon scoffed at the plan.
“Ease up on the damn smokers!” said Jason King, a 40-year-old pack-a-day cigarette smoker from Denver.
Another smoker, 31-year-old Darlene Sandoval of Denver, was skeptical the change would make a difference.
“Maybe you can stop them from buying cigarettes in the store, but you’re not going to stop them from smoking,” said Sandoval, who smokes about half a pack a day.
The 21-to-smoke proposal isn’t the only tobacco measure pending in the Legislature. Another bill would ban the sale of electronic cigarettes and other nicotine delivery devices to people under 18. That bill awaits a hearing in the Senate.