Bill to make 21 legal age to buy tobacco products moves; one of several anti-tobacco bills from Rep. David Watkins, retired doctor

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

A bill to raise the legal age to 21 to buy any tobacco or vaping products in Kentucky was approved Feb. 11 by the House Health and Welfare Committee and now heads to the House floor.

Rep. David Watkins

“Smoking basically contributes to heart disease, it contributes to chronic lung disease, it contributes to cancer, it contributes to peripheral vascular disease. . . . It does a lot of things that are negative,” Democratic Rep. David Watkins, a retired physician from Henderson and the bill’s sponsor, said at the meeting. “We raised the age to use alcohol to 21 a long time ago. To me, raising the age for individuals to use tobacco to 21, I think, makes sense.”

House Bill 299 would take effect Aug. 1. Currently, anyone 18 and older can legally buy tobacco and vapor products in the state.

Watkins noted that more than 380,000 people die from tobacco-related illness in the U.S. each year and charged the committee to pass this bill saying, ” If we want to change the health of Kentucky, we are going to have to do something different.”

Rep. Tim Moore, R-Elizabethtown, said that while he appreciated the spirit of the bill, he could not support it unless it held an exemption for members of the military and veterans who are often “calmed and soothed by tobacco” after facing “very dire circumstances.”

“I do not want legally to impose our will, however altruistic it is in this case, on those young men and women who have served in harms way in combat situations under the age of 21,” Moore said. “So without that exemption, I cannot support this bill and encourage others not to.”

Watkins said that while he respected veterans, he disagreed with Moore and said, “If we really want to do them a favor, we will help them stop smoking.”

After the committee meeting, Watkins said it’s important for Kentucky to attack tobacco, once the state’s main cash crop, on several fronts.

In addition to supporting Rep. Susan Westrom’s recently filed smoking ban bill, Watkins said he had filed two other anti-smoking bills, one that would increase the tax on cigarettes (HB 247) and another that would require retail outlets to conceal tobacco products until a customer request them (HB 322).

Watkins said, “If it’s the number-one health problem that we can identify, then why in the world wouldn’t we be trying to do something about it if you want your state to become healthier?”

So far, only the state of Hawaii has raised the legal smoking age to 21. According to the latest Kentucky Health Issues Poll, 61 percent of Kentuckians (the same percentage among Democrats and Republicans) support raising the legal age to to 21.

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