Teens Push to Raise Age for Buying Tobacco in Connecticut

Teens lobbied at the state legislature on Wednesday to push for the legal age of buying cigarettes increase from 18 to 21.

If passed, Connecticut would become one of six states to ban the sale of tobacco products to anyone under 21, which includes e-cigarettes or vaping products like the newest fad among teen tobacco users, JUULS.

"The amount of people who are 'JUULing' has skyrocketed," Daksha Reddy, a Glastonbury High School senior, said. 

The e-cigarette devices are small enough to fit in someone's palm, but Andrew O’Bright, the regional manager of the Vapor 9 shops, said they’re also more potent than other vaping products. 

"They have a higher level of nicotine," O’Bright said. "We don’t sell them because we don’t believe it’s an effective way to get a smoker off of cigarettes."

One JUULs pod holds almost as much nicotine as an entire pack of cigarettes and has a rectangle shape. Other e-cigarette devices, often found at gas stations, look more like a pen.

"People bring it to school and put it in their pencil cases. Nobody can tell, nobody can notice," Reddy said.

Kamren Johnson, a New Britain High School senior, said he sees students using them on the school bus. He joined a group of teens at the state capitol on Wednesday pushing lawmakers to raise the age of legal tobacco sales to 21.

"Sometimes even at lunch in the cafeteria when no one’s looking they do it under the table," Johnson said.

The bill failed to pass the legislature last year.

This issue is above politics. It’s above any individual. It relates to what’s best for the public health of Connecticut," Rep. Andy Fleischmann, who chairs the Education Committee, said.

Health officials hope by raising the age beyond high school will cut off access to younger kids who buy tobacco from their older friends.

"Unfortunately, my own son is in a middle school. He sees kids who have used these products in the classroom when the teacher turns their back. They exhale the vapor into their backpack," Jim Williams, the government relations director at American Heart Association, said. 

Williams said 95 percent of tobacco users start before the age of 21.

"In Connecticut, there are 56,000 kids now under the age of 18 that will eventually die of their own tobacco use," Williams said. 

O’Bright, who is lobbying lawmakers to keep the age at 18, said the state needs to do a better job of enforcing the laws it already has on the books.

"We don’t believe that anybody under 18 should be using our products or any other products when it comes to cigarettes, drugs, anything. We do have to be realists though. Kids will get their hands on anything if they want to," O'Bright said. 

While some vape shops are reluctant to sell JUULs, they’re still finding a way into the hands of underage students thanks to resale websites that don’t verify the purchaser’s age.

For its part, JUUL Labs told NBC Connecticut its mission is to eliminate cigarette smoking among adults and that it is actively working with local law enforcement and community leaders to further reduce the number of minors who possess tobacco products.

"We strongly condemn the use of our product by minors, and it is, in fact, illegal to sell our product to minors. No minor should be in possession of a JUUL product," the company said in a statement. 

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