Measure to Raise Tobacco Purchase Age to 21 Heads to Senate Vote

    In seven states and Washington, D.C., it is illegal for retailers to sell tobacco products to anyone younger than 21.

    A bill that would make Maryland the eighth state to boost its age-of-consent for cigarette sales cleared an important hurdle Tuesday when the Senate Finance Committee voted 9-2 to advance a measure offered by the panel’s chairwoman, Sen. Delores G. Kelley (D-Baltimore).

    The measure, which backers have dubbed Tobacco 21, includes the sales of so-called e-cigarettes, such as JUUL, whose sales have skyrocketed in recent years.

    Health advocates high-fived one another outside the hearing room after the bipartisan show of support.

    “What we’re really seeing right now is a public health epidemic,” said Laura Hale, head of the Maryland chapter of the American Heart Association. “Our youth are using these products at really high rates. … By raising the age to 21, just like we saw with alcohol, we kick it out of the high schools.”

    “Tobacco 21 will save lives,” added Jocelyn Collins of the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network.

    At a bill hearing last month, retailers expressed concern that 18-, 19- and 20-year-old store clerks might not be allowed to sell cigarette products as the bill was originally drawn.

    Companies that manufacture e-cigarettes are watching Maryland’s actions closely. They claim their products are frequently used by people who want to quit traditional cigarettes.

    “Vapor products need to be thought of as a health tool, as a harm-reduction component that allows adult smokers to lead a healthier lifestyle by quitting cigarettes,” said David Pasch, a spokesman for Voices for Vaping, part of the Vapor Technology Association. “It doesn’t make any sense in the world to start taxing and doing other things to discourage people from buying vapor products, when they exist and need to exist to help adult smokers quit.”

    Health advocates scoff at such claims.

    E-cigarettes “have more nicotine on average than cigarettes do,” said Eric Gally, part of the Tobacco 21 advocacy team. “What they’re doing is they’re getting a whole new generation more hooked on nicotine.”

    “The [Food and Drug Administration] … has classified [e-cigarettes] as a tobacco product,” Hale said. “They’re not a smoking-cessation device.”

    A spokesman from JUUL said the company is committed to preventing youth access of its products, “and no young person or non-nicotine user should ever try JUUL.”

    “We cannot fulfill our mission to provide the world’s one billion adult smokers with a true alternative to combustible cigarettes if youth use continues unabated,” Ted Kwong said in a written statement. “Tobacco 21 laws have been shown to dramatically reduce youth smoking rates, which is why we strongly support raising the minimum purchase age for all tobacco products, including vaping products like JUUL, to 21 in Maryland.”

    He said that the company’s website already requires all purchasers to be 21 and older.

    “We look forward to working with policymakers at the federal, state and local levels to achieve Tobacco 21,” Kwong continued.

    Although two Republican members of the panel voted against the bill, Sen. Edward R. Reilly (R-Anne Arundel) voted to send it to the Senate floor. “When it hits home, it’s different,” he said, noting that he has a 16-year-old grandson who, being in high school, is in a daily environment where people are experimenting with vaping.

    A House version of Tobacco 21, House Bill 1169, is sponsored by Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s), chairman of the Economic Matters Committee.

    The Illinois House of Representatives voted 82-31 today to pass a Tobacco 21 bill.

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    Bruce DePuyt
    Bruce DePuyt spent more than two decades on local television, including 14 years as host of News Talk on NewsChannel 8 in the D.C. metro region. He has served as reporter, anchor and producer/host of 21 This Week in Montgomery County, as well as a reporter/anchor at NBC affiliate WVIR-TV in Charlottesville, VA. Bruce also is the host of the weekly The Bruce DePuyt Podcast.