Carney pushes bill raising age to buy tobacco products

DOVER — Seven states currently restrict the sale of tobacco products for those younger than 21 years of age. Delaware could soon become the eighth.

State officials on Tuesday detailed legislation filed last week that would raise the age at which someone can buy cigarettes, chewing tobacco, electronic cigarettes and related products from 18 to 21, calling the measure a critical step in improving public health.

Dozens of people — lawmakers, health professionals, students and others — came to the Delaware Public Archives to show their support for the bill which Gov. John Carney described as “the most important thing we can do to contain health care costs and to prolong the life of so many Delawareans.”

Senate Bill 25 would prohibit individuals under 21 from purchasing tobacco and related items and would also remove an exemption that currently allows parents to buy tobacco products for their underage children.

Violations would carry fines, although anyone who sells to an 18-, 19- or 20-year-old would only be guilty of a civil penalty.

According to statistics cited by officials supporting the bill, 85 to 90 percent of all lung cancer cases stem from tobacco use and lung cancer accounts for 30 percent of cancer deaths in Delaware.

About 1,400 deaths in the First State are caused by tobacco each year.

“Raising the age to 21 will also help reduce staggering economic costs of tobacco-related illnesses in our state,” said Gov. Carney, who announced the push in his January State of the State speech. “The (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) says that Delaware spends more than $500 million annually on medical costs to treat tobacco-related illness. Five hundred million dollars. Imagine what we could do with that money used elsewhere.”

But far more important than monetary savings, speakers said, is the impact the bill could have on individual lives.

“That’s a loss we can never put a dollar figure on. How do you put a price tag on 3,650 fewer days of life?” noted Kara Odom Walker, secretary of the Department of Health and Social Services.

Delaware instituted a smoking age of 17 in 1953 and then increased it to 18 in 1992, with a 2014 law grouping electronic cigarettes in with tobacco products.

The national smoking age is 18, although some states and local governments require individuals to be older in their jurisdictions.

While Senate Bill 25’s passage seems likely, not every lawmaker is on board.

Rep. Lyndon Yearick, R-Camden, is among those who are skeptical the change would drive the decrease in smoking rates that some supporters predict.

“People are going to adjust, they’ll go across the line. Get back to the case where you’re old enough to vote, old enough to insure a car, you should be able to make that decision if you want to be able to buy tobacco or vape products,” he said.

But officials are confident the bill would prevent many from starting smoking in the first place, not just by preventing young adults from buying cigarettes outright but also by blocking 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds from getting them for younger friends. According to Rep. Melissa Minor-Brown, D-New Castle, 80 percent of adult smokers started using tobacco before age 21.

Although Gov. Carney did not specifically address the subject of legal smokers who would be underage if the bill passes and thus would be unable to lawfully obtain tobacco products, he did urge all tobacco users to quit, noting the state has services to help those looking to combat their addiction.

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

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.

Many teenagers think vaping is harmless, but health officials caution it is not.

“Cigarettes scare me, but I’ll show you what really scares me. These things scare me,” said Rep. Minor-Brown, holding up a Juul, an e-cigarette that contains nicotine in different flavors.

The U.S. surgeon general in December declared e-cigarette use among youth a “epidemic,” specifically singling out Juul devices.

According to House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear, students were instrumental in bringing the age issue to legislators’ attention last year. Some of those same young advocates were among the 30 or so Delaware students in attendance at Tuesday’s news conference, and they made their support of the bill clear, breaking into chants of “Raise the age!” after the event concluded.

The legislation, which is backed mostly by Democrats, is set to be heard in the Senate Health and Social Services Committee today.

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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