"Today, Guam stood up to Big Tobacco, and together we won." – Speaker Benjamin Cruz
A bill introduced by Speaker Benjamin Cruz that would raise the legal age for purchasing tobacco products from 18 to 21 is now law, and will go into effect next calendar year.
"After the testimony, toil and tears of so many, we did it. Today, Guam stood up to Big Tobacco, and together we won," Cruz said in a statement. "Armed with facts instead of fear, young people, health care professionals and countless community advocates persisted, and because of their work, this bill is now law."
Cruz long championed the raising of the legal purchasing age for tobacco products on the grounds that reduced access to tobacco products by young people would result in reduced health care costs that benefit the entire community.
'Cigarettes aren't just a product, they're a drug'
"When 70 percent of smokers want to quit but can't, cigarettes aren't just a product, they're a drug," he said. "And, so long as it costs taxpayers 50 times more to treat a patient who smokes compared to a patient who doesn't, it's the entire community, not just the individual, who pays for that choice."
While Cruz's bill was being heard and debated on the floor, freshman Sen. Fernando Esteves proposed an amendment which would double the fines imposed on violations of the new age restrictions. That amendment made it through.
Come Jan. 1, 2018, stores found selling cigarettes, chewing tobacco, e-cigarettes or any other product containing tobacco to anyone under the age of 21 will be fined $1,000 for their first offense within a five-year period. Subsequent violations within the same 5-year period result in fines of $2,000, $5,000 and $10,000 in the case of a fourth violation. After the fourth violation, any licensed store caught selling to individuals younger than 21 will have their license revoked and be unable to apply for a new one for a two-year period.
Esteves said he proposed the amendment as a means of "giving the bill some teeth," saying a $500 fine for a first offense wasn't even a slap on the wrist for most establishments. He added that despite possible misconceptions concerning the new law, the fines are not imposed on persons below 21 years of age caught using tobacco products, but are rather levied only on establishments caught selling such products to people under 21 years of age.
Local smoking statistics
The American Cancer Society welcomed the new law.
Cathy Rivera Castro, with the American Cancer Society's Guam chapter, said tobacco remains the No. 1 preventable cause of cancer in Guam.
"While smoking rates have dropped in the last few years, Guam's smoking rate of 27.4 percent remains significantly higher than the national average of 17.5 percent," she said. "Guam's youth smoking rate is 17.6 percent, and the national average is at 10.8 percent. One in three of Guam's high school students, and one in four middle school students, uses electronic cigarettes."