A proposal to raise the minimum legal age to buy tobacco products in Portland from 18 to 21 drew modest support at a preliminary hearing Tuesday.

The City Council’s Health and Human Services Committee moved the proposal forward after hearing testimony that nearly 90 percent of adult smokers started before they were 18 years old, according to the U.S. Surgeon General.

The proposal wouldn’t change the minimum legal age to possess or use tobacco, which also is 18. The goal is to reduce the access that some teens have to highly addictive tobacco products, especially through friends and others who are 18 to 20 years old.

“It really is intended to create a barrier for teens,” said Councilor Edward Suslovic, committee chairman. “I think it’s a pretty modest step.”

The three-member committee heard from a handful of speakers before deciding to forward the proposal to the full council for further action on April 25. If the council likes the idea, it will send the proposal back to the committee for formal consideration and recommendation.

“We’re not rushing into this,” Suslovic said, adding that the public would have plenty of notice and several opportunities to address the proposal.

Portland, which was the first community in Maine to ban smoking in restaurants in 1998 and banned smoking in public parks in 2013, would be the first municipality in the state to raise the minimum age for tobacco sales.

The city would join at least 135 communities across the United States that have tightened tobacco access for young adults. Boston, New York City and Chicago have raised the minimum age for tobacco sales to 21, and Hawaii was the first to enact the policy statewide, according to the Tobacco Control Legal Consortium, a legal network that advocates for tougher tobacco laws.

TEENS MORE SUSCEPTIBLE

Portland’s proposal also would apply to electronic cigarettes, which the city added to its anti-tobacco ordinance last year. E-cigarettes are battery-operated devices that heat liquids containing nicotine and flavorings and create a vapor inhaled in a process commonly called “vaping.”

Proponents of raising the minimum age for tobacco sales said it’s a necessary move because tobacco companies target their products to young people and teens are more susceptible to acquiring an addiction they may never be able to shake.

One in five Maine high school students uses tobacco products, and many start as young as 12 or 13, according to the Partnership for a Tobacco-Free Maine. More than 2,000 Maine kids under age 18 become daily smokers every year and nearly 30,000 of them will die prematurely from their tobacco addiction.

“It’s the No. 1 killer in Maine,” said Carol Kelly, a Portland resident and public relations specialist who has worked for a variety of health-related programs in Maine, including the Maine Coalition on Smoking and Health.

One of three people who spoke in favor of raising the age, Kelly said the nicotine in tobacco is a gateway drug that deserves special attention in a state with a growing heroin and opioid addiction problem. She said adolescents are most at risk of developing long-term addiction issues because their brains aren’t fully developed, so their impulse control and decision-making skills also lag.

CREATING ‘FORBIDDEN FRUIT’

If Portland raised the minimum age to 21 now, supporters hope to see results in relatively short order. By the time today’s teens become adults, the city could see a 12 percent reduction in the prevalence of tobacco use, said Toho Soma, Portland’s public health director, referring to a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

No one spoke against raising the minimum age to 21 during the hearing. However, John Kreis, owner of the Old Port Vape Shop on Market Street, shared his thoughts outside the meeting. He said the change might turn tobacco into a “forbidden fruit” for some people.

“I question whether it’s going to help,” Kreis said. “People are going to get cigarettes elsewhere.”

The higher minimum age would be enforced through an expansion of the city’s NO BUTS! program, which uses underage teens as decoys to buy tobacco during random inspections and provides education and training to retailers and their employees, city staff members told the committee.

Under Maine law, a person who is found guilty of selling tobacco products to someone under age 18 must be fined $50 to $1,500 and pay court fees. A person under age 18 who is found guilty of possessing or using tobacco products may be fined $100 to $300 for a first offense and $200 to $500 for subsequent offenses.

Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: KelleyBouchard