Delaware lawmakers raise age to buy tobacco products to 21

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Delaware lawmakers wait to vote on raising the legal age to purchase tobacco products to 21 Thursday. (Zoë Read/WHYY)

Delaware lawmakers wait to vote on raising the legal age to purchase tobacco products to 21 Thursday. (Zoë Read/WHYY)

The rising popularity of e-cigarettes has prompted the Delaware General Assembly to raise the age to buy tobacco-related products.

Following a partisan debate on the floor Thursday, the House voted 26-16 to raise the smoking age in the state from 18 to 21.  In March, the Senate passed the legislation 14-6.

The legislation will save lives by encouraging young people to stay away from cancer- causing tobacco products, proponents say. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports 95 percent of smokers began using cigarettes before age 21.

Tobacco is the leading cause of preventable death and disability in Delaware — and the United States — claiming 1,400 lives per year in the First State. Treatment of tobacco-related illnesses costs Delaware $532 million annually, according to state officials.

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At least 450 cities and 11 states have voted to raise the age for tobacco use to 21.

The legislation also prohibits the sale of tobacco substitutes, such as e-cigarettes, to those under 21. As marketing campaigns for these products target preteens and teens, public health officials say, usage has become epidemic. According to studies, more than 13 percent of high school students use the products.

“It’s going to bring awareness, and we’re going to get to the point we can keep tobacco products out of the hands of young children,” said bill co-sponsor state Rep. Melissa Minor-Brown, D-New Castle.

“The issue we have now is our 18- to 21-year-olds, especially 18-year-olds, are obtaining these products and passing them down to our high school and middle school children. Our kids are so impressionable right now,” she said. “It’s bad enough they’re seeing these products on TV, they hear it on the radio, they see signs in the stores — and the cool flavors are attracting our kids.

“So we have to get ahead of this. We have to save our children.”

The legislation places the burden of enforcement on sellers. Those under 21 would not be penalized if caught with a tobacco product.

Currently, those under 18 caught with cigarettes could go to Family Court as an adjudicated delinquent and face the possibility of community service or a fine. The new legislation eliminates that penalty completely.

Republicans expressed concerns Thursday that raising the age to purchase the tobacco products would be hypocritical when the age of majority is 18 for all other categories except alcohol use. Two lawmakers read letters from constituents serving in the military who pointed out that they can go to war and risk their lives, but will not be permitted to buy a pack of cigarettes upon their return.

“What I’m getting in my district is we’re having government choose what the age of responsibility is for decision making,” said state Rep. Steve Smyk, R-Milton.

“So where is the age of responsibility? Is it 18? Or is it a different age for each decision, that we’re going to decide they make? (It has to be one of two things) Outlaw tobacco altogether, or  raise the age of responsibility and adulthood to 21.”

Other legislators said efforts would be better spent regulating vaping.

Vapor manufacturers, such as JUUL, support of the legislation.

“We are committed to preventing youth access of JUUL products, and no young person or non-nicotine user should ever try JUUL. We cannot fulfill our mission to provide the world’s 1 billion adult smokers with a true alternative to combustible cigarettes if youth use continues unabated,” a spokesman for the company said last month.

Gov. John Carney will sign the legislation next week, and it will become effective 90 days later.

“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,” he said in a statement. “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.”

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