Every conversation in Hartford these days comes down to two things — dollars and cents.
Unfortunately, there’s not enough focus on dollars and sense.
As a result, lawmakers face an unenviable task in developing working solutions to the financial crisis the state finds itself in. There is a proposal before the Connecticut Legislature to raise the tobacco sale age to 21 (HB 5384) that deserves to pass because it will protect kids from tobacco, won’t hurt state revenues in the short run, and will save the state millions of dollars in health care costs in the long run.
Unfortunately, a flawed fiscal analysis of this proposal threatens its chances of passage. The fiscal note incorrectly assumes that once the bill goes into effect, every tobacco user ages 18 to 20 will immediately quit tobacco. It would be wonderful for that to be true, but it is not a realistic assumption. Nicotine is highly addictive, and most smokers have difficulty quitting.
The biggest impact of the law will be in preventing kids from starting to smoke in the first place. The Institute of Medicine’s 2015 report on the impact of raising the tobacco sale age to 21 found the group most impacted would be 15- to 17-year-olds. Over time, declines in kids starting to smoke accumulate, and will translate into declines in adult smoking over the long term.
The policy is not expected to have a dramatic and immediate effect on adult smoking, which accounts for most of the state’s cigarette sales.
Under the current legal age of 18, high school students are often in the same social networks as of-age purchasers. It is no surprise, then, that nearly two-thirds of 10th- graders surveyed said cigarettes are “easy to get.” That’s bad news for the next generation of smokers, but good news for the tobacco industry, which wants to get these kids addicted early, when their susceptibility to nicotine addiction is higher. The tobacco industry is on the record as saying if people aren’t smokers by their early 20s, there’s much less chance they will be smokers for life. Raising the tobacco age to 21 helps keep tobacco out of high schools and helps protect youth from a lifetime addiction to nicotine and tobacco.
Smoking-related health care costs are a huge financial burden to the state of Connecticut—to the tune of $2 billion a year. Taking an evidence-based view of the likely impact of this bill on current smokers, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids estimates the fiscal impact of HB5384 would be an estimated one quarter of 1 percent reduction in tobacco excise tax revenue over the first five years.
The impact on tax revenue in the first year would be even less. This means the cigarette and tobacco tax revenue declines resulting from the Tobacco 21 policy would be a tiny fraction of what Connecticut has estimated. And preventing kids from becoming addicted smokers would significantly reduce future health care costs.
A tobacco age of 21 is common-sense legislation. The long-term savings, coupled with an extremely small short-term fiscal impact, is exactly the type of thoughtful outlook our lawmakers need to take to have any hope of a healthier, more stable Connecticut.
Kevin O’Flaherty is the director of advocacy of the Northeast Region of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.