- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 25, 2015

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - Doctors and public health organizations told lawmakers Wednesday that making the state the first in the nation to raise the age for legal tobacco purchases to 21 would help prevent death and disease, while convenience store owners urged them not to hurt their businesses.

Lawmakers considered Democratic Rep. Teresa Tanzi’s bill to raise the age from 18 at a House committee hearing. Tanzi said making it harder for young people to get cigarettes could prevent them from starting to smoke, and have tremendous health implications statewide.

Karina Holyoak Wood, policy director for the American Lung Association in Rhode Island, said Tanzi’s proposal is “free, easy and effective.”

“It’s an emerging public health measure, but we consider it a promising practice,” she said. “We don’t think there’s anything to lose.”

Although some municipalities including New York City have raised the minimum age to 21, no state has done so. Four states have set the age at 19.

Tanzi’s bill would apply to all forms of tobacco and take effect immediately. Public health professionals testified in support.

Retailers and electronic cigarette businesses that were concerned her bill would include vapor products opposed it.

The House Committee on Health, Education and Welfare held the bill for further study. Rep. Robert Lancia, a former Navy chaplain, said he struggled with the potential freedom implications. He noted that people can fight and die for the country at the age of 18.

Muhammad Qandil, who owns a 7-Eleven store in Providence, and Yasin Muhammad, who owns a Pick N Pay Food Mart in Bristol, said smokers would go across the border to buy tobacco products, and they would get their milk, candy and lottery tickets while they’re there.

Both owners said they would be fine with the policy change, as long as Massachusetts and Connecticut raised the age first.

“It’s a bad idea to put the bill into law when everyone can go across the border,” Muhammad said. “We’ll lose business and we’re already suffering.”

Tanzi, who represents Narragansett and South Kingstown, expected opposition from retailers.

“I know it will impact them to some degree, but we have to enact policies that are best for the welfare of the entire state,” she said. “It just makes sense to me that with all of the evidence in front of us, we should be raising the age to 21.”

The Institute of Medicine issued a report this month that said raising the legal age to buy tobacco nationwide to 21 would result in more than 200,000 fewer premature deaths, about 50,000 fewer deaths from lung cancer and 4.2 million fewer years of life lost for people born between 2000 and 2019.

It would take an act of Congress to increase the federal minimum age from 18.

The federal report found that about 90 percent of daily smokers first tried a cigarette before the age of 19.

Rhode Island-based CVS drew national attention last year when it pulled tobacco products from its stores.

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