Trumbull teens looking to score tobacco and other nicotine products from convenience stores will find it decidedly less convenient under a new ordinance that passed the Town Council Monday. Resolution TC27-163, which raises the age to buy such products from 18 to 21, had bipartisan support on the council, with no members voting against it and only one abstaining.
In addition to the higher age limit, the resolution also established a $100 retail tobacco license on merchants, and set a series of fines for compliance failures. Hartford and Bridgeport have already enacted similar ordinances. Milford’s Board of Aldermen passed a 21-year tobacco ordinance the same night as Trumbull.
Council members, and a number of parents in attendance at the meeting, remarked that the legal age being 18 to buy cigarettes and vaping supplies essentially created a secondary market in the schools.
“At Trumbull High School, it [vaping] is rampant,” said Diane Severino, a parent of two students. “Kids I know are buying for younger kids.”
Melissa McGarry, the project coordinator for TPAUD, Trumbull’s youth substance abuse prevention program, said her organization had conducted surveys indicating that vaping was common among local teens.
“According to our 2017 survey, the rate is 15% among students in grades 7 through 12,” she said. Among the senior class at Trumbull High, 1-in-3 had vaped within the past 30 days, she said. In addition, 74% of Trumbull youths said vaping products were easy to get through the school’s black market.
McGarry, who is the mother of three teens, said her daughter had turned 18 recently.
“Within 24 hours she was getting texts from younger students pestering her to buy for them,” she said.
First Selectman Vicki Tesoro, speaking unofficially as a parent and member of TPAUD, said teens needed protection from potential long-term harm.
“We have to change with the times on different issues that come before us,” she said. “When it comes to vaping, most often [teens] are the guinea pigs for the tobacco companies.”
Tesoro said her father, a World War II veteran, received cigarettes as part of his rations.
“Back then, we didn’t know that it would result in long-term suffering of many people as they got older,” she said. “That may be what we’re facing with these children now.”
Council member Ashley Gaudiano, who along with Paul Verbitsky and Eric Paulson did the bulk of the research and drafting of the resolution, reassured parents that the enforcement would be directed at retailers, not teens.
“The ordinance will be enforced by the Health Department and the compliance checks will be done by police,” she said. “The enforcement is for selling. It does not punish children.”
One issue brought up by Councilman J.C. Cinelli was whether the town had the right to preempt state law. Councilman Jason Marsh had expressed similar reservations in committee, questioning whether the town could hypothetically allow 15-year-olds to vote or establish 21 as the legal driving age in town. Ultimately, both were persuaded by Town Attorney Daniel Schopick that passing the ordinance posed no risk other than the potential for litigation. If the state passed a 21-year-old law for tobacco sales, it would simply replace the Trumbull ordinance in town.
Councilman David Pia expressed mixed emotions. A smoker for most of his life who once quit for a decade, Pia said he recognized the dangers of such products on youngsters and had hoped his own children would not take up the habit, though two of his six children did.
“My concern is with the mixed message of when you are an adult, and when aren’t you,” he said. “When you’re 16 you can drive a car and get an abortion. When you’re 18 you can join the military and serve in combat, but hey, you can’t have a cigarette because you’re not mature enough.”
He also said he was reluctant to add an additional licensing fee on merchants, and worried about the potential revenue loss on small businesses when someone stops for cigarettes but then also buys a cup of coffee, a snack, and fills up their gas tank.
“I guess I sound like a politician because I’m on both sides, but I just can’t picture a soldier in uniform and he can’t buy a pack of cigarettes,” he said.
In response, Councilman Keith Klain said he had initially looked into creating a special exemption for service members. But he changed his mind after doing some research and learned that the military by-and-large supports efforts to keep tobacco out of soldiers’ hands.
“About 25% of people in the military smoke,” Klain said. “The military has banned smoking during basic training, and they have their own programs to try and drive the numbers down.”
Ultimately the resolution passed 17-0 with Pia abstaining. Council member Ann Marie Evangelista said she hoped more local communities would join Trumbull in enacting higher age limits on tobacco products. She pointed out that there were numerous convenience stores just over the Monroe border that were far more convenient to get to than similar stores in Trumbull.
“Kids go into Monroe to get those $.89 Slurpees, so you know they’ll go up there for Juuls,” she said.