A bill currently being considered in the Rhode Island Senate proposes to raise the purchase age for tobacco products to 21, from the current legal age of 18.
The bill, introduced in January by Senators Rhoda Perry P'91, D-Providence, and V. Susan Sosnowski, D–New Shoreham and South Kingston, replaces each mention of age 18 in the current law with the proposed age of 21 and changes nothing else.
Current Rhode Island law prohibits anyone under the age of 18 from purchasing tobacco products and outlaws the selling or delivery of tobacco to minors.
Perry said that this bill is based on the public health benefits of restricting tobacco use during a time when many young people form lifelong habits. She said the bill is not an attempt to force her beliefs on others.
"I'm not trying to be moralistic about this," Perry said. "It's research, as well as morbidity and mortality statistics we're looking at."
Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island Affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that while smoking is unhealthy, this bill does not make sense given the other legal rights afforded to 18-year-olds.
"Eighteen is the age of majority," Brown said. "An 18-year-old is legally an adult and can marry, enter into contracts and serve in the military, so he or she should be able to smoke cigarettes."
Brown added that this bill is an attempt to protect individuals who he believes are old enough to be making decisions on their own.
"It is a discrimination against young adults solely on the basis of their age," Brown said. "It's a protective measure that refuses to recognize that 18-year-olds are adults and should generally be treated as such."
Despite Perry's claim that research validates the bill, she does not believe it will pass this year. She predicted that the influence of special interests and political pressure to avoid measures that might further depress Rhode Island's struggling economy would prevent the bill from passing in the near future.
"There are a good number of people who would feel inclined to agree with the measure, but on the other hand there are very powerful lobbying groups who are against this," Perry said. "We're trying very hard to work at the budget and our state's economy right now, but eventually we may see this bill's passage become a possibility."
Both Brown and Perry noted that smoking is harmful, but each had a different approach to how it should be handled from a legal perspective.
"Smoking is a stupid thing to do, but it's stupid at any age," Brown said.
Perry said that while consumption of alcohol in moderate amounts can have social benefits — and even potential health benefits — a cigarette represents "an ill wind that blows no good."
She said that raising the age at which an individual can obtain tobacco would simply be one of the most effective ways to discourage young people from smoking.
"These days we're looking at what researchers say works, which is keeping young people from starting cigarette smoking," Perry said. "Studies have revealed that the longer a young person is kept from smoking, the less likely he or she is to start."