Published: March 24, 2014
DENVER - The conversation about smoking in Colorado isn't focused solely on pot this year. Lawmakers and health officials will also take a stab at curbing nicotine and tobacco use.
"It's the 50th anniversary of the Surgeon General's warning label that got affixed to cigarettes," said Dr. Larry Wolk, executive director and chief medical officer for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. "There's been a national and a statewide commemoration of that, bringing it back to the people's attention."
On Friday, the House passed Senate Bill 18, which bans nicotine products from being sold to anyone under the age of 18. A loophole in Colorado law left it unclear whether nicotine products - like mints and candies - could be sold to minors if they didn't contain tobacco.
The bill passed the Senate 25-10 but must go back for reconsideration because of amendments in the House. The governor will have final say on the bill. Some lawmakers questioned whether the bill was redundant because nicotine products made from tobacco are covered under Colorado law.
Wolk kicked off the year with a campuswide smoking ban at state public health and environment department to set the right example for the state, he said.
"One of my pet peeves was I didn't want people pulling up to the health department and seeing a paradox where you have people standing out in front of the state health department smoking," Wolk said. "It's not about personal choice. It's about as the health department, and we want to set the right example."
Wolk said the new ban hasn't needed enforcement, although he joked that he now sees employees standing across the street from the department smoking from time to time.
"I think it always surprises people how many smokers we have in this state," Wolk said.
Colorado has one of the nation's lowest smoking rates, about 18 percent in 2011, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The proposal to raise the legal smoking age from 18 to 21 was defeated in a Colorado house committee on Wednesday and also was voted down in Utah and Maryland. There's still a bill pending in Maryland.
The suggestions to increase the tobacco age have been inspired by new research on the numbers of smokers who start the habit as teenagers.
"The main point is accessibility, making it more difficult for young people to begin smoking," said Jodi Radke, regional advocacy director for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
Sen. Jeanne Nicholson, D-Black Hawk, gave similar reasoning for her bill explicitly barring nicotine products from those under the age of 18. She said the tobacco-free products are a gateway to smoking for youths, and that once kids are hooked, it's hard to stop smoking.
SB18 would still allow cessation products - those that are approved by the Food and Drug Administration - to be sold to those under 18 who are attempting to stop smoking.
Wolk said there needs to be more research into the e-cigarettes and smokeless cigarettes, products which have been able to avoid FDA regulation.
"Even though it's debatable what the true health impacts are . these are gateways to young adults and teenagers moving to tobacco products, which we know are harmful," Wolk said.
Contact Megan Schrader
Associated Press Writer Kristen Wyatt contributed to this report.