Bill to raise age to buy tobacco to 21 fails in committee after intense discussion

Man smoking E-Cigarette indoor.

Amidst increased pressure from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to crack down on underage use of tobacco products, a bill to simply change the age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21 was debated in the Senate Agriculture Committee on Monday.

After much discussion on the issue and the implications to tobacco farmers in the state, the committee voted down the bill with six lawmakers voting no and four voting in favor of the bill.

As the use of e-cigarettes has seen a huge spike among high schoolers and even middle school students, the FDA has threatened to pull e-cigarettes off the shelves if the youth smoking rates do not decrease over the next year.

Senate Bill 249, sponsored by Sen. Stephen Meredith, came as a result of that threat to try to avoid such a move by taking initiative to lower the rates of youth smoking.  Meredith said marketing and flavorings of these vapor products has led to the increase and also said an increase in the age would help address this as well as put the product on a level playing field with alcohol.

In discussing the legislation, many lawmakers expressed frustration with Altria, one of the nation’s largest producers and marketers of tobacco products who are behind the bill, who they say have always “weaponized” farmers to bombard legislators and vote against policies the company does not want (tobacco free schools, for example) and are now coming to the committee to vote in favor of something they feel will hurt tobacco farmers across the state.

Sen. Meredith said he understands the concerns of members but also explained part of the reason he has sponsored the bill is because tobacco-related health issues cost the state more than $2 billion with more than $600 million Medicaid dollars being spent on such health issues per year.

After the intense discussion, many lawmakers noting that while the threat from the FDA could lead to even bigger issues for tobacco farmers in the state if the agency pulls tobacco products off the shelf but the bill was still voted down by the committee.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Paul Hornback said the committee could bring the bill at a different time and vote on it again but did not indicate whether or not they plan to do that before the end of the 2019 session.

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Jacqueline Pitts
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