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Juul products are displayed at a smoke shop in New York on Dec. 20, 2018. After a crackdown by the Food and Drug Administration in 2018, Juul discontinued flavors that were seen as marketed to teens. (Seth Wenig, The Associated Press)

Congress could soon pass bipartisan legislation raising the age to purchase tobacco products across the U.S. to 21 from 18. 

But if the proposal grinds to a halt in the slow-moving gears of Washington, a pair of Democratic state lawmakers are poised to ensure the change happens in Colorado. 

State Sen. Jeff Bridges of Greenwood Village and state Rep. Kyle Mullica of Northglenn are planning to introduce a bill that would raise the minimum age required to purchase any tobacco products in the state to 21. They see it as a way to curb Colorado’s teen-vaping crisis and eliminate the patchwork of cities and counties in the state — like Denver and Summit County — that have already increased the threshold age for tobacco-buying.

“It creates a standard across the entire state,” Bridges said. “It means that folks in Denver can’t just drive to the county line to buy whatever they want to buy.”

Nineteen states, the District of Columbia, and more than 500 local governments have already raised the minimum age to purchase tobacco products to 21, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids

Legislation following that lead is expected to be attached to a package of year-end spending bills in Congress, and has the support of Altria, which owns Philip Morris International and makes the Marlboro cigarette brand, as well as Juul, the vaping-device company. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, is among the idea’s proponents.

Colorado has already been in the midst of discussions about how to reduce the number of young people using tobacco, which health and civic leaders say is at epidemic levels. The state’s teen vaping rate, at 27%, is said to be the highest in the nation.

The effort to increase the tobacco-buying age to 21 is just the latest part of that effort.

The cigarette and vaping display at a convenience store in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood on April 30, 2019. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

“You drive by any high school and you can see the issues that we’re facing,” Mullica said. “It’s going down to middle school. By increasing the purchase age to 21, it makes its a lot harder for that 18-year-old high schooler to go in and buy it for their friends.”

By cutting down on that “social sourcing,” Bridges and Mullica believe they can stem the tide of increasingly younger tobacco users. And making sure that young people don’t start using tobacco, Bridges says, can have lifelong impacts.

“We know that folks who start smoking at age 20 and under, it is much, much — just physiologically speaking — harder for those folks to quit later in life,” he said. 

Colorado health officials have confirmed 12 cases of a severe vaping-related respiratory illness in the state that’s impacted people and proven deadly across the nation. The median age of those patients in Colorado is 19. 

State health officials are also investigating whether the death of an 18-year-old man was due to the illness.

While the legislation is expected to win bipartisan support at the state Capitol if it’s introduced — state Rep. Colin Larson, R-Littleon, and state Sen. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, have voiced support for the idea — other Republicans are already airing opposition.

Read more health stories from The Colorado Sun

“If I can take a bullet for my country, I should damn well be able to smoke a cigarette with my buddies once I return from deployment,” state Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, said in a statement referencing how if the tobacco age were increased it would be above the threshold for military enlistment.

Senate Majority Chris Holbert, R-Parker, said that he, too, disagrees with the idea, but that if it’s going to happen, it should be done universally across the nation to prevent young people from driving to neighboring states to purchase tobacco products. New Mexico, Wyoming, Kansas, Utah and Oklahoma, Colorado’s border states, are not among those that have raised the tobacco-purchasing age to 21.

“I would rather see it at the federal level rather than see a patchwork of state legislation,” he said.

Bridges says he is open to making sure any legislation that increases the tobacco-purchase age has a carve out allowing younger people to access cessation products, like nicotine gum or patches.

A store selling vaping products in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Colorado lawmakers have also been eyeing a ban on flavored vaping products as a way to reduce teen e-cigarette use. Gov. Jared Polis, however, has had a tepid response to such a proposal, saying he supports personal freedom. 

Governors in other states, including New York, have enacted flavored vaping product bans by executive action and cities across the nation have enacted such policies of their own.

Last year, the legislature rejected a measure pushed by Polis that would have asked voters to OK a 62% tax on all nicotine products. 

Colorado currently taxes only cigarettes and cigars and at a level of 40%, leaving vaping products exempt. 

The tobacco industry hired lobbyists to fight the effort and it was voted down in the state Senate. 

In the November elections, a number of communities raised tobacco taxes on their own, including Boulder, Vail, Crested Butte and Pitkin County. 

The Colorado Sun —

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Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage.

A Colorado College graduate, Jesse worked at The Denver Post from June 2014 until July 2018, when he joined The Sun. He was also an intern at The Gazette in Colorado Springs and The News Journal in Wilmington, Delaware, his hometown.

Jesse has won awards for long form feature writing, public service reporting, sustained coverage and deadline news reporting.

Email: Twitter: @jesseapaul