Portland may raise the legal age for buying tobacco products within the city from 18 to 21.

The City Council’s Health and Human Services Committee will take up the proposal Tuesday as a way to limit young people’s access to highly addictive tobacco products.

“If we can reduce the number of teens with access to tobacco, there will be fewer teens addicted to nicotine and fewer teens wishing they hadn’t taken up the habit in the first place,” said City Councilor Edward Suslovic, who chairs the committee. “I really think this is a really good step for the city. I’m convinced it’s a reasonable thing for us to do.”

The policy under consideration would leave the legal age to consume tobacco products at age 18 and change only the legal age for sales, because “it’s a lot easier to control at the point of sale,” Suslovic said.

Portland, which was the first community in the state to prohibit smoking in restaurants in 1998 and banned smoking in public parks in 2013, would be the first municipality in Maine to raise the minimum age for tobacco sales. If approved, Portland would join a growing number of communities across the U.S. that have tightened tobacco access for young adults.

More than 100 municipalities, including Boston, New York City and Chicago, have raised the minimum age of tobacco sales to 21, and Hawaii became the first state to enact the policy statewide, according to the Tobacco Control Legal Consortium, a legal network that advocates for tougher tobacco laws.


Suslovic said the three-member committee would likely ask the full council to weigh in before drafting an ordinance. Mayor Ethan Strimling said he is “very supportive” of the proposal.

The burden would fall on the retailers of tobacco products – and at least some are not enthusiastic about the idea.

Ken Nagle, owner of Cigaret Shopper, a smoke shop with 19 locations throughout the state, including two stores in Portland, said he believes the policy would be an infringement on personal liberties and another anti-business policy in Maine’s largest city.

“You have a big government with a liberal agenda. It’s a continuation of that,” said Nagle, whose company is based in Brewer. He said it costs him nearly $500 more to operate his business in Portland than it does in other communities because of higher fees.

“They want to be like New York and other cities around the country that are doing this. Time will tell if that’s good for business or not,” Nagle said.

Last year, the city added electronic cigarettes into its anti-tobacco ordinance. The new proposal to raise the age of legal sales would also apply to e-cigarettes, which use a battery-operated device to heat up a liquid with varying levels of nicotine and other flavoring chemicals to create a vapor inhaled by the user. It’s commonly referred to as vaping.


John Kreis, owner of the Old Port Vape Shop on Market Street in Portland, said vaping is an effective way to help people quit smoking. He pointed to a Yale University study that showed smoking rates increased in areas that enacted restrictions on vaping.

Both Kreis and Nagle said it was silly that 18-year-olds can join the military, shoot a weapon and ultimately die for their country, but the government doesn’t trust them to make an informed decision about whether to smoke.

Liam Singh, 19, and Cara Peslak, 19, both sophomores at Maine College of Art, talk about the proposed change to the legal age to purchase cigarettes.

Liam Singh, 19, and Cara Peslak, 19, both sophomores at Maine College of Art, talk about the proposed change to the legal age to purchase cigarettes.

The proposed policy had the support of several young smokers interviewed Friday, although they also said they could get around the ordinance with the help of friends who are over 21.

Kincaid Pearson, a 20-year-old sophomore at the Maine College of Art, said he supports the change in policy because it would make it more difficult for teenagers to get cigarettes. Most high school students don’t know someone age 21 or older who will buy them smokes, he said.

Pearson also said the policy wouldn’t prevent him from getting and smoking cigarettes, because he would ask a friend to buy them. But, he said, it would be an effective way to prevent young teens from picking up the habit.

“A lot of kids start smoking before 18 – I did,” said Pearson, who started age 16. “I think it will definitely deter kids from starting to smoke earlier.”


Cara Peslak, a 19-year-old MECA sophomore, agreed.

“It wouldn’t hurt to raise the age,” said Peslak, who is trying to quit smoking after nearly three years. “At 18, kids aren’t really capable of making that decision” about beginning to smoke.

Liam Singh, a 19-year-old MECA student who started smoking at the age of 15, also supports the proposal.

“Honestly, I will just ask a friend to buy my cigarettes like back in the day, but it would probably limit my smoking,” Singh said.

Suslovic said public comment will be allowed at Tuesday’s meeting, which takes place from 5 to 7 p.m. at Room 24 in the basement of City Hall.


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