Senators pass antismoking legislation
PROVIDENCE -- Alarmed that smoking among teenagers is increasing in Rhode Island as it falls in other states, legislators yesterday took steps to keep cigarettes out of the hands of children and limit their exposure to smoke.
The Senate Health Education & Welfare Committee unanimously approved a bill that would crack down on illegal tobacco sales to minors on the Internet and raise the legal age of possession of cigarettes from 16 to 18. The bill is expected to pass the full Senate and then go to the House.
In addition, the Senate voted unanimously to pass another bill that would broaden the ban on smoking at the state's 1,300 commercial and home-based day-care centers. The House is expected to pass an identical bill next week.
The legislative action came as state officials and antismoking activists urge the state to intensify its fight against smoking, the single leading cause of premature death in the nation.
Rhode Island is getting $1.4 billion over the next 25 years as part of a settlement between the 50 states and cigarette companies. Of the $59.6 million that Rhode Island got in its first settlement installment this year, however, Governor Almond and the General Assembly earmarked only $1 million for antismoking programs; the rest went to balance the budget.
State Health Department Director Patricia A. Nolan, Lt. Gov. Charles J. Fogarty, Senate Majority Leader Paul Kelly and antismoking activists want the state to earmark millions more for antismoking initiatives. The rate of smoking among Rhode Island children increased by 50 percent from 1993 to 1998, according to public health groups, while it fell in other states, including Massachusetts.
The measures voted on yesterday would not cost the state anything.
The first bill, which was introduced by Senate HEW Chairman Thomas Izzo at Fogarty's request, would require that Internet or mail-order purchases of cigarettes be accompanied by proof that buyers are at least 18, the minimum legal purchasing age. When cigarettes are delivered by the U.S. Postal Service or private carriers, someone over the age of 18 would have to sign to accept the package. Cigarette mail-order companies that violate the law could be fined $1,000.
The bill also would allow law-enforcement agencies that investigate illegal sales of cigarettes to minors at neighborhood stores to expand their efforts to target mail-order companies. It would also ban the distribution of free tobacco products or coupons to people of any age. And it would raise the minimum age for legal possession of cigarettes from 16 to 18 to match the legal purchasing age.
Fogarty was delighted by the bill's passage. He said studies show that 85 percent of smokers started well before the age of 18 and that more than 5,000 Rhode Island children become daily smokers each year.
"Tobacco companies know that if they hook teens on tobacco, they'll have customers for life," he said. "That's why they study the brain-wave patterns of preteens and why they create products that appeal to youngsters."
An antismoking coalition that includes local chapters of the American Cancer Society, the American Lung Association and the American Heart Association applauded the legislation.
The other bill, which was sponsored by Sen. Walter Felag Jr., D-Warren, would broaden prohibitions on smoking at licensed day-care centers. Currently, smoking is banned only inside the state's 400 commercial day-care centers, each of which typically accommodate up to 100 children, Felag said. His legislation, which is sponsored in the House by Rep. Nancy Benoit, D-Woonsocket, would expand the ban to 900 home-based centers, which care for small groups of children. And it would prohibit smoking in outside play areas adjoining both types of centers.
Some 35 states have restrictions similar to those in the legislation, Felag said.