This story is the first of a two-part series on the smoking age change.
For some young people, this summer will be their last to light a cigarette or use a vape, at least for a while.
Effective Oct. 1, Connecticut’s smoking age will rise from 18 to 21, encompassing tobacco products, e-cigarettes and vaping. It falls on businesses to enforce the law by checking IDs. Shops that sell to underage customers could face fines and could even have their cigarette selling license revoked. People under 21 who attempt to buy products could also face a fine.
When Gov. Ned Lamont signed the bill on June 18, Connecticut joined 15 other states in raising the age, as well as countless cities and towns across the country, including Southington, which made the change back in March.
That three year difference has drawn support from schools, health professionals and even some smoke shops. Others, however, like tobacconists with largely young clientele and vaping advocates, say the law will do more harm than good.
Bristol smoke shop owners anticipate a drop in business.
“It’s obviously going to hurt our business a little,” said Dwain Thibodeau, cashier at Big Cat’s Smoke Shop. “People are going to be driving up north” to Massachusetts to purchase tobacco products.
Thibodeau said just recently young smokers were coming into the store to buy cigars for their graduations.
“It’s just crazy they’re not going to grandfather in people who are already buying tobacco,” he added.
Thibodeau’s wife, Sevasti Hatzisavvas, who is also the daughter of the owner of Big Cat Smoke Shop, agreed. She said not only will people go to other states to buy cigarettes and vapes, they’ll buy gas, snacks and other things while they’re there. That means Connecticut businesses will miss out.
Hatzisavvas added that the age change will prevent young people from coming into their shop at all. They won’t be able to see the other products they offer, like clothes that appeal to a younger crowd.
However, the increase to 21 won’t be completely devastating.
“A lot of our customers are an older crowd,” Hatzisavvas said. “The vapes, the pipes, that kind of stuff, is more centered to the ages 18 to 25.”
Md Islam, owner of Tobacconist, also had his concerns.
“We’re going to lose business,” he said, adding that it’ll be tough for small businesses for two or three years. After a time, though, the smoke shops will adjust.
“It’s eventually going to be passed everywhere,” he said. Though he was skeptical about just how effective the law will be.
“They’re going to use their friends to buy it,” he said.
“If this country considers 18 adult, why don’t they have the right to smoke?” Islam asked.
Come October, the effectiveness of the law at deterring young people from smoking will be put to the test. A few, like Andrew O’Bright, argue that not only will the law be ineffective in deterrence, it will also make it harder for young people to quit smoking.
O’Bright is the President of the Connecticut SFATA Smoke-Free Alternative Trade Association. The association, comprised of six to eight businesses, advocates for vaping rights and lobbied against the law.
“We don’t support an increase in the smoking age at all,” O’Bright said, adding that people under 18 are already obtaining the products; making the smoking age 21 isn’t going to change that.
“It doesn’t make sense,” he said.
Moreover, he said state lawmakers were wrong to group vaping in with other tobacco products. He proposed increasing the tobacco age to 21, while keeping the vaping age at 18.
Contrary to the near daily news headlines, O’Bright said, there is no teen vaping problem.
There hasn’t been much research into the health risks or benefits of vaping, but O’Bright said it is a healthier alternative to smoking cigarettes.
“We have to look toward other countries,” he said. “In other countries, vaping products are exploding.”
According to Public Health England, vaping is 95% safer than smoking.
However, the State Department of Public Health’s 2017 Youth Tobacco Survey stated Juul “contains the same amount of nicotine in one ‘pod’ as in a pack of cigarettes, and many teens report that they use one pod each day.”
The survey also said 14.7% of high school students used e-cigarettes, an increase from 7.2% in 2015.
Dr. Stephen Caminti, who leads Bristol Health’s pulmonary medicine program, said there hasn’t been enough research into the long-term effects of vaping. However, he said he doubts vaping is completely safe because a few studies have found some harmful chemicals, including one that could cause lung disease.
Some people argue that vaping could be a gateway into smoking cigarettes. To that, O’Bright says, “the facts are the facts and that’s just not the case.”
Someone who started out smoking a strawberry or watermelon vape isn’t going to start smoking cigarettes, he said.
No where is the distinction between conventional tobacco smoking and vaping more apparent than at All Things Vape, which has locations in Plainville and Newington.
The store is set up more like a café, with comfy couches and tables for laptops, than a bodega. The website invites people to come try out their wide variety of eLiquids at their sampling bar and relax in their lounge.
Joe Fagnand, manager in Plainville, said about 20 to 25% of their customers are between the ages of 18 to 21.
“All in all the smoking age increasing is going to affect our business and people who are trying to quit smoking,” Fagnand said.
Owner Brandon Gold said their customer base is ages 25 to 65, made up mostly of people who want to quit smoking.
“Anything that will keep vaping helping people - we’re all for it,” Gold said. “Vaping is under siege based on this teen epidemic they’re claiming.”
Gold also said two juveniles robbed the Plainville store on June 24. Big Cat’s Smoke Shop in Bristol was also robbed recently by a juvenile. The same 17-year-old robbed the shop six times in three months.
Both shop owners are worried the age change could cause an uptick in burglaries by people who can no longer buy the products they want. Some shop owners were also worried about a black market emerging.
Their main concern, however, is that in less than two months their doors will close to their young customers. And to all the business they bring in.
THE FINE PRINT:
Businesses can face fines and even license suspension or revocation if they fail to check IDs. The first offense carries a $300 fine if the business fails to complete an online tobacco prevention education program. The second offense bills the business $750, while the third and fourth offenses cost $1,000 each along with a 30-day license suspension and license revocation respectfully.
Employees, too, can end up paying for selling to someone underage. It’s $200 for a first offense, if they don’t complete an online program, and $250 for a second offense if it occurs within two years of the first.
Those who misrepresent their age face a much lesser fine of $50 for a first offense and between $50 and $100 for each offense after.
The Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (DMHAS) will conduct unannounced checks on the businesses and refer the noncompliant ones to the Department of Revenue.
The law also prohibits smoking and e-cigarettes for everyone on the grounds of child care centers and schools property at all times.
Michelle Jalbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.