Senate OKs raising age to buy tobacco, vape products

DOVER — The Senate on Tuesday approved a bill that would raise the age to buy tobacco and vape products from 18 to 21. The measure now goes to the House.

The legislation, which passed 14-6 with one senator absent, would bar 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds from buying cigarettes, chewing tobacco, electronic cigarettes and related items. Individuals who are younger than 21 but are legal smokers now would not be grandfathered into the bill.

Selling tobacco to someone younger than 21 would carry a fine, although retailers would only face a civil penalty for selling to an 18-, 19- or 20-year-old.

While the measure seeks to prevent young adults and teenagers from starting a lifelong addiction, it does not contain penalties for buying or using tobacco underage.

“We’re simply trying to delay if not eliminate the formation of this habit,” main sponsor Sen. Bryan Townsend, D-Newark, said after the vote. “Part of the way of doing that while still respecting adult choices is to increase the age to 21, and from an enforcement perspective, it’s most important just to try to stop the sale to people under 21.

“Enforcement best practices, enforcement cost efficiency, those kinds of things don’t work out well if you’re focusing on possession under 21. It’s better just to try to clamp down on the sale.”

The measure is backed by Gov. John Carney and health experts. Although Democrats are driving the bus on the proposal, the bill received several Republican votes in favor Tuesday.

According to state officials, tobacco kills about 1,400 people in the First State each year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates tobacco use causes health care costs totaling about $532 million in Delaware each year.

The national smoking age is 18, although seven states and a number of municipalities require individuals to be older.

But opponents, most of whom agree smoking is a harmful practice, argue the state should not forbid individuals who are legally adults from making a decision to use tobacco.

“So, you can vote, you’ll be prosecuted as an adult if you commit a crime, you can sign and be held accountable for legally binding contracts and you are by the law of the state of Delaware the age of majority,” Sen. Colin Bonini, R-Dover, said during a brief floor debate.

“I don’t want anybody to smoke. I especially don’t want young people to smoke, but if you’re 18 years old I think you have the maturity to make that decision yourself.”

Sen. Townsend said afterward that while 18 is the age of adulthood in Delaware, individuals do not gain the ability to do everything upon reaching that age, with restrictions around drinking alcohol — which Sen. Bonini described as different from tobacco because alcohol impairs judgment — and running for state office.

“Most adult things are 18 but not all, and the clear negative consequences of smoking, of forming that habit, it just is so one-sided with regard to how bad it can become with regard to health costs that this is something I feel is appropriate to say until you’re 21 you can’t do,” Sen. Townsend said.

The bill is projected to result in a slight revenue decrease for Delaware, but supporters say the long-term savings in health costs far exceed that.

Due to increased awareness and prevention campaigns, smoking rates have dropped over the past few decades: 17 percent of Delaware adults currently smoke, compared to 30 percent in 1982, according to Gov. Carney. But despite that progress, a new trend has alarmed health experts.

Vaping, or electronic cigarette use, has skyrocketed in recent years, with 21 percent of high school students reporting they vaped in the past 30 days in 2018, compared to less than 2 percent in 2011. Although many teenagers think vaping is harmless, health officials caution it is not.

Juul Labs, which makes an electronic device specifically singled out by the U.S. surgeon general in December as one of the drivers behind the vaping craze, supports raising the age to 21.

According to a 2015 report from the Institute of Medicine, 95 percent of adults who smoke started before turning 21, and increasing the age to 21 nationwide would result in 223,000 fewer premature deaths.

Smoking age vote

The Senate voted Tuesday to forbid the sale of tobacco and vape products to individuals younger than 21. The bill now goes to the House. Below is a listing of how senators fell on the issue.

Yes (14): Brown, D; Cloutier, R; Delcollo, R; Hansen, D; Lockman, D; Lopez, R; McBride, D; McDowell, D; Paradee, D; Poore, D; Sokola, D; Sturgeon, D; Townsend, D; Walsh, D

No (6): Bonini, R; Ennis, D; Hocker, R; Pettyjohn, R; Richardson, R; Wilson, R

Absent (1): Lawson, R


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