Raise the Age? By 2019, you may need to be 21 to buy tobacco in Essex County

President of New York State Vapor Association Michael Frennier speaks in opposition to the age raise at a public hearing with the Essex County Board of Supervisors Monday in Elizabethtown. (Enterprise photo — Griffin Kelly)

ELIZABETHTOWN — Essex County could see a change in its tobacco sales policy before 2019.

The Board of Supervisors held a public hearing Monday in regard to raising the legal age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21. The board will choose whether to adopt the resolution at its regular meeting Tuesday, Sept. 4 at 10 a.m.

The hearing falls in line with the goal of Tobacco 21, a national campaign focused on raising the age for purchase.

According to the Food and Drug Administration and the state Department of Health, tobacco products include cigarettes, loose cigarettes, cigars, bidis, gutka, chewing tobacco, powdered tobacco, nicotine water, herbal cigarettes, shisha, smoking paraphernalia and e-cigarettes and similar devices. Some of those don’t actually contain tobacco, though.

Traditional products like cigarettes, cigars and cigarillos contain ingredients such as tobacco, nicotine, arsenic and tar. When they’re lit, nearly 7,000 more chemicals are released, and about 70 are known to cause cancer.

Julie Hart of the American Cancer Society speaks in favor of raising the age for purchase of tobacco products from 18 to 21 at a public hearing with the Essex County Board of Supervisors Monday in Elizabethtown. (Enterprise photo — Griffin Kelly)

E-cigarettes and other liquid vaporizers don’t contain tobacco and little to no nicotine. The other two main ingredients are propylene glycol, which is commonly used to remove ice from airplanes, and glycerine, which can be found in hair gels and lubricants. There are also added flavorings that can create tastes like cherry, vanilla, cotton candy and peanut butter cup.

While vapes are generally marketed as a way to quit traditional smoking, many health groups think they are just a new vehicle for smoking.

Representatives from the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association and Reality Check, an anti-smoking group, attended the hearing and spoke on the issue. While the majority of public speakers were in favor of raising the age for purchase, one person was not.

New York State Vapor Association President Michael Frennier said raising the age for purchase would have a minimal financial effect on his industry and only increase tobacco consumption among youths.

“What we’ve seen across the nation in the counties and the cities that have raised the age to 21, teenage smoking skyrockets the first year,” he said, “and it doesn’t go down after that.”

Frennier said he used to smoke three to five packs of cigarettes a day and that vaping helped him stop.

“I quit smoking,” he said. “I was wrestling with my grandson one day and about two minutes in, my heart was pounding out of my chest — couldn’t breath. Like a fool, I went outside, sat on the porch and lit up a cigarette and it hit me like a light bulb how foolish I was being. I ended up picking up the electronic cigarette, and I haven’t had a cigarette since.”

Frennier said he still vapes today.

While some states do have a minimum age for tobacco consumption, New York does not.

“If you want to make a lasting change, change the age like they did for alcohol,” he said. “There are consequences. Change the age, so you can’t consume tobacco under the age of 18. Give law enforcement the ability to walk up, take the cigarettes from the youth and ask them or the parents ‘where did you get the cigarettes?’ Have the consequences for that.

“It’s not illegal for a 21-year-old person to buy a pack of cigarettes and give it to a 12-year-old. I’m not saying that goes on, but it’s not illegal for a child to stand in front of a police station and smoke a cigarette.”

He then went on to say that public health organization and initiatives perpetuate the sale of big pharma products such as nicotine gum.

“Tobacco 21 is not a grassroots effort,” he said. “Look at the money behind them. You know, the Adirondack Health Institute has almost $200 million. That’s not grassroots. It’s not grassroots at all.”

On the other side of the argument, Julie Hart of the American Cancer Society said she didn’t know from where Frennier was getting his statistics. She also brought up Frennier’s claims that e-cigarettes and vapes help people quit smoking.

“When it comes to smoking cessation,” she said, “we obviously want smokers to quit, and we want them to try the seven FDA approved medications because they’re proven. The FDA has not approved electronic cigarettes as a smoking cessation tool.”

Those seven products include various nicotine gums, patches, lozenges and inhalers, as well as certain anti-depressants and Chantix, which is specifically given to those who wish to quit smoking.

Hart continued, “If somebody has exhausted all of their options, which may happen because a lot of times it takes smokers numerous times to quit. If they completely quit smoking and just used E-cigarettes, that would be a better option. We 100 percent admit that. But, what he failed to mention is that in our policy statement we also said that Tobacco 21 needs to be part of the strategy. Kids don’t use E-cigarettes to quit. They use these E-cigarettes to start. Where he was getting this information that tobacco use spikes after the age raises is just not the case. I think it actually might even be a bold-faced lie.”

Hart presented a study from the Institute of Medicine [National Academy of Medicine since 2015] that predicts a decrease in cigarette smoking initiation rates among youths when the age for purchase is raised.

Common vaporizer brands include SMOK Fit, Limitless Pulse and one of the most popular on the market, Juul. These refillable products range in price from $15 to about $50.

Caitlin O’Brien of the American Heart Association said vaporizers are the way youths are becoming smokers these days.

“Because these Juuls are so cheap — they come in pods cheaper than a pack of cigarettes, and they come in flavors like Swedish Fish, creme brulee and chocolate — so these kids are using them and picking them up not realizing that these products contain the same amount if not more nicotine than a pack of cigarettes,” she said. “We’ve talked to kids, and they say that they’re finishing a pod in one sitting, right? You wouldn’t finish a pack of cigarettes in one sitting.”

Kristina Wieneke of the American Lung Association brought up harmful chemicals in vapes and E-cigarettes.

“Some products don’t have any nicotine, but I heard [Frennier] mention other chemicals like glycerin and diacetyl, which are both linked to degenerative lung disease,” she said. “Diacetyl causes ‘popcorn lung.’ It’s often used in popcorn and caramel flavoring, so all these workers in popcorn factories were getting degenerative lung diseases. There is no safe level of exposure to these toxins, especially nicotine.”

A common argument against the age raise is, “If a person is old enough to serve in the military, who are we to tell them they’re not old enough to purchase tobacco.”

Elizabeth Multop, who manages Up in Smoke in Lake Placid, said she agrees with that sentiment. While her shop offers pipes and rolling papers, she said a good amount of her sales are from vape and e-liquids.

“I really noticed quite a difference around two years ago,” she said. “We had a very small amount of vapes and E-liquids in the shop, but then things really grew. We started having a lot of requests for it so we thought well try out a few. And now it’s half of our sales every day.”

Though she disagrees with the change, Multop said it most likely wouldn’t affect her business, and that youths will inevitably find ways to obtain tobacco products.

Multop said she wouldn’t peg younger folks as the only people who use vapes.

“I find it really varied,” she said. “I’m always very surprised that we get such a wide range of people to buy these. Even older folks, who have never smoked, come in and they’re interested in a vaping. It’s not just the young kids that come in to purchase the vapes.

“I understand how the fruity flavors can be enticing, and I can totally see where that would entice younger children, but as long as their parents are open and honest with them about the downfalls of smoking, as well as vaping — it is addictive and does have the nicotine in there — that 18 is a good way to go.”

If the board approves the amendment, Essex County would be the first county in the North Country to raise the age, and it would join a number of other areas in New York that have done the same. Those include two cities — New York and Albany — and 13 counties — Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Cortland, Nassau, Onondaga, Orange, Rockland, Schenectady, Suffolk, Sullivan, Tompkins, Ulster and Westchester. States such as Massachusetts, Hawaii, California, Oregon, Maine and New Jersey have raised the age of purchase state wide to 21.

In a phone interview, North Elba town Supervisor Roby Politi said he’d be surprised if the resolution wasn’t passed on Sept. 4. He also said the adoption could influence other North Country counties.

“Everybody has a different opinion, but I think anything you can do to curtail smoking problems and smoking in youth is good,” he said.

Politi also didn’t agree with Frennier’s arguments.

“One of the first things he mentioned was he’s a lobbyist,” Politi said, “and that was the end for me. He didn’t influence me in any way.”

As for the future of tobacco sale in New York, Politi said, “I think in the next three years, the state will pass legislation on tobacco,” he said. “We’re just getting it started. Some say it’s a feel-good law, well yeah, I feel good about it.”