By ANDREA LANNOM
CHARLESTON — A Senate committee advanced a bill that would change the legal age to buy tobacco products to 21 years old.
Senate Bill 37, would raise the legal age to purchase tobacco and vapor products from 18 to 21. Hawaii and California have done something similar along with certain municipalities in Arizona, Arkansas, Kansas, New York, New Jersey and Ohio.
Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, is the lead sponsor and Sens. Glenn Jeffries, D-Putnam, and Robert Beach, D-Monongalia, are co-sponsors. The bill was referred to the Senate Finance Committee after much debate.
Sen. Robert Karnes, R-Upshur, questioned the zero fiscal note, saying he thought it seemed ridiculous. He said by his calculations, the state would at least lose $6 million to $7 million a year.
Karnes also said it wouldn’t prevent people younger than 21 years old from smoking and would make “a new class of criminals” of people currently addicted.
“Are we going to tell a guy that you can go to a foreign nation to defend freedom under enemy fire and when he actually survives the danger of combat that he cannot experience the extreme danger of smoking a cigarette? I find the whole thing objectionable to dictate to adults behavior they can engage in. It’s egregious to even be discussing,” Karnes said.
Sen. Mike Azinger, R-Wood, called it “political correctness” if the age that one becomes an adult in West Virginia is 18 for everything but buying liquor.
“I just don’t understand this,” he said. “It seems to be political correctness to me. The intent is good from the sponsors but we have adults buying a legal product. I just want to clarify those two things.”
Dr. Rahul Gupta, commissioner for the Bureau for Public Health, told the committee that people are more likely to be lifelong addicts if they start earlier. He said most people become regular smokers by 21.
He said there would be an “exorbitant cost savings in terms of preventing health consequences in these young adults.”
Gupta said the state has had successes and failures in tobacco use. For success stories, he said the prevalence rate of youth has dropped from 32 percent to 16-18 percent. With pregnant women, he said the prevalence rate dropped from 28 percent to 24 percent, saying the number is still very high.
“Where we have not had success is adults,” he said.
Gupta said the Mountain State competes with Kentucky for the top spot of tobacco use in the country, most of the time ranking No. 1.
Karnes compared the situation to the state’s prevalence of diabetes, asking Gupta if the state would save money by increasing the age to buy sugary cakes or soda.
“If we were to outlaw Twinkies until 21, or keep people from trying sugary products until 21, wouldn’t we save money as it relates to the diabetes program?” Karnes asked.
Gupta said he thought a better comparison is with alcohol, where he said there was a tremendous drop in motor vehicle fatalities.
“It’s a more comparative case with alcohol than it is with Twinkies because if you outlaw Twinkies, you could just go to Dunkin’ Donuts,” Gupta said.
Karnes said his point was about dictating people’s health.
“My point is if you’re dictating people’s health and we make the determination that no one can make bad decisions until they’re adults and we redefine what it means to be an adult from 18 to 21, then when do we stop?” he said.
Gupta said it is an issue of addiction, saying people struggle with withdrawal and tolerance and said it is not the will of a person to continue smoking. He said he has seen many people stop cold turkey but said most people need help.
Karnes later asked why stop at 21. Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, said she doesn’t think the bill will solve anything.
“I’m against smoking in general, but what I wanted to bring up is there is a lot of health dangers we face. Even though the legal age of buying tobacco at a certain age, people are still getting access. I don’t believe having a law is going to dictate behavior. I don’t think this is solving the health crisis we have,” Rucker said.
Karnes voted no to the bill, calling it “absurd.”
“Day 1, we are creating a new class of criminals of people already addicted to to smoking. … You could make the argument in the days alcohol was moved from 18 to 21 that you could slide it in but even as the doctor pointed out, well over half of our youth try cigarettes before 18. It’s already illegal. … You’re not keeping it out of the hands of them if they’re already trying at 12. We’re not solving any problem here. We are creating a class of criminals now because we want to feel good about ourselves. … It’s absurd to tell people who can vote and serve in the military that in this instance, we will replace his judgment with ours.”
Stollings supported the bill, saying it was in the interest of public health.
“To say it’s an absurdity is absurd when we know the No. 1 killer of our population is tobacco, followed closely by obesity. The No. 1 driver of health care costs is tobacco, followed by obesity. In a state arguably the least healthy population in the country — our Medicaid population and PEIA population are very unhealthy — we lead in tobacco use and we’re fourth in obesity. … If this bill can pass, it would arguably be one of the biggest public health bills this Legislature has passed in a decade or 25 years.”
Azinger called the bill “heavy-handed government.”
“This is government outside of the parameters of where the Constitution belongs,” Azinger said. “My friend from Upshur is right. Why don’t we outlaw junk food? This is political correctness, redefining morals, placing immorality on tobacco products. … This certainly isn’t a mind-altering product, not something causes you to do harm to others. I don’t recommend it and my kids won’t do it in my house. But I just don’t like it. I just don’t like it. I’m wary of political correctness. This is government going outside of its bounds.”
The committee also took up three other bills on Thursday:
• SB 40, which would require protocols for response to after-school emergencies in school crisis-response plans. The bill was referred to the Senate Education Committee.
• SB 187, which concerns the confidentiality of patient records for physical, mental or emotional conditions. The bill was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
• SB 188, which corrects the definition of telehealth in the medication assisted treatment portion of code. This bill was reported to the Senate floor.
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