State set to raise age to buy tobacco from 18 to 21

DOVER — Are you an 18-, 19- or 20-year-old smoker? You might want to stock up on tobacco products in the next three months, because pretty soon you won’t be able to buy them.

The House on Thursday passed legislation raising the age to purchase cigarettes, vapes, chewing tobacco and related items from 18 to 21. The measure, which was approved 25-16, now goes to Gov. John Carney, who is expected to sign it next week.

The Senate passed the legislation 14-6 last month.

Announced by Gov. Carney in his January State of the State address, the proposal is intended to reduce the number of smokers.

“Preventing smoking is the best thing we can do to improve the health of our state, and reduce the growth of health care costs over time,” Gov. Carney said in a statement Thursday. “The use of tobacco-related products is the leading cause of preventable death and disability in Delaware and across the country.

“Tobacco-related illnesses, such as lung cancer and heart disease, claim the lives of 1,400 Delawareans each year, and treatment of those illnesses costs Delaware families, businesses and the State more than $530 million annually. We expect this legislation will help curb the impact of smoking on Delaware families by preventing more young Delawareans from picking up this dangerous habit in the first place.”

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.

Once the bill takes effect 90 days after the governor signs it, selling tobacco to someone younger than 21 will carry a fine, although retailers will only face a civil penalty for peddling their wares to an 18-, 19- or 20-year-old. There is no penalty for buying or using cigarettes or related products underage, which was a point of contention Thursday.

The bill eliminates a provision in state law assessing a fine and community service on any underage person who purchases or uses tobacco, although Rep. Mike Ramone, R-Pike Creek Valley, introduced an amendment to put penalties back in place. However, because his amendment did not restore the entirety of the removed statute, the penalty for possession by an 18-, 19- or 20-year-old would have defaulted to an unclassified misdemeanor, which carries with it up to 30 days in jail.

“I prefer to focus on the companies that are luring our children in to these horrible products that lead to severe health issues instead of trying to place penalties on our children for falling into peer pressure,” House prime sponsor Rep. Melissa Minor-Brown, D-Wilmington Manor, said after the vote, explaining why she urged her colleagues to vote down the amendment. “I would rather bring awareness and try our best to keep it out of their hands.”

After some discussion — and significant confusion — Rep. Ramone withdrew his proposal.

The national smoking age is 18, although seven states and some municipalities have theirs higher.

Opponents of the proposal — which on Thursday included every House Republican and Rep. William Carson, D-Smyrna — say Delaware should not prevent individuals who can get married, sign a legally binding contract or join the military from making a personal decision to use tobacco, unhealthy as it may be. To that end, Rep. Carson filed an amendment that would have exempted active and former members of the U.S. military from the new age limit, but it was defeated by the House.

“It’s about choice,” Rep. Carson said. “If someone goes in, raises their hand, swears allegiance to their country and is willing to accept any responsibility up to dying for it, travel halfway around the world and back many times, I don’t think it’s proper they come home and (are told), ‘Thank you for your service but you’re not mature enough to buy tobacco products.’ I think that is wrong.”

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 advocates.

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.

In addition to the predicament soon-to-be-underage tobacco users face, business owners are worried about the hit they expect their bottom line to take.

“We’ll need to pivot to selling alcohol and becoming more of a bar just to stay afloat,” said Kartik Patel, the 26-year-old owner of the just-opened Oasis Hookah Lounge in Dover.

“That’s something I just didn’t want to do because it draws a certain type of crowd. I was looking to create a lounge atmosphere, not a bar one. We’re open until 2 a.m. and with alcohol in the mix, that can sometimes bring trouble with it.”

Mr. Patel believes the new law will be an obstacle to the survival of his business, which caters to a “college-aged crowd” and employs eight Delaware State University students in addition to himself. Sixty-one percent of the lounge’s customers are between 18 and 24, he said.

While he acknowledged smoking tobacco is not a healthy activity, he feels strongly adults should have the discretion to consume the substance if they decide to.

“It’s true that it’s not good for your health, it’s smoking,” he said. “But it’s like eating too much. Are we going to ban sugar and soda? Obesity is an even bigger problem right now — cardiovascular health is the No. 1 issue in this country.”

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