Bill to raise legal age to purchase tobacco products in Kentucky to 21, in compliance with federal law, passes first hurdle

Kendall Tubbs, Bonnie Hackbarth and Sen. Ralph Alvarado spoke for a bill to raise Kentucky’s legal age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21. (Photo by Melissa Patrick)
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By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Heatlh News

FRANKFORT, Ky — A bill to raise the legal age to purchase tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes, from 18 to 21 in Kentucky passed unanimously out of a Senate committee Jan. 15.

Senate Bill 56 would bring Kentucky’s statute into compliance with the new federal law raising the age to 21.

The bill passed the Senate Health and Welfare committee with a substitute that added language to make it better fit the federal law and remove language regarding penalties for 18- to 20-year-olds, said the bill’s prime sponsor, Sen. Ralph Alvarado, R-Winchester.

“This is a solution that is being offered to address the youth vaping epidemic that has been ravishing Kentucky,” Alvarado said.

similar bill was introduced in the last legislative session, but tobacco-friendly senators blocked it. Some tobacco companies lobbied for it, and the federal change, to reduce pressure for regulation of electronic cigarettes, use of which has become epidemic among teenagers,

Between 2017 and 2019, e-cigarette use more than quadrupled among Kentucky’s middle-school students and nearly doubled among its high-school students, with one in four high schoolers and one in five middle schoolers reporting monthly use; and one in 10 high school students reporting daily use. Cigarette use among middle schoolers jumped 60 percent in this same time frame, Bonnie Hackbarth, vice-president for external affairs with the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, told the committee.

“Clearly, Kentucky has a youth tobacco problem that is getting out of hand, threatening both our kids short-term and long-term health, portending huge future health care costs and jeopardizing the readiness of our future workforce,” Hackbarth said.

Alvarado noted several reasons for raising the legal age of purchase to 21. First, he noted that because most smokers start before they turn 18, decreasing youth initiation will eventually mean we have fewer adult tobacco users in the state.

He noted that reducing youth exposure to nicotine will improve their health, since it is known that nicotine impairs the parts of a teen’s brain that is responsible for making decisions, controlling impulses and governing behaviors. It also primes their developing brains to other illicit substances.

He said most underage people get their tobacco products from “social sources,” who tend to be 18 or 19, and this age increase will cut off many of their sources.

Kendall Tubbs, a senior at Graves County High School and a member of its drug-free coalition, told the committee that it is easy to find “pod dealers” in the school. He said they are often 18-year-olds who have until recently bought the products legally and re-sell them at school.

A pod is a pre-filled cartridge that is used in a vaping device. They typically contain both nicotine and flavorants, as well as other substances that can be harmful when inhaled.

The bill also removes the status offense and penalties for youth who purchase, use or possess tobacco products, often called PUP laws. It allows the products to be confiscated and shifts the penalty to retailers who fail to adequately check buyers’ identifications.

Hackbarth said the foundation offered strong support for the removal of these status offense and penalties. “Yes, we want our kids to be accountable for their decisions,” she said. “But putting kids into the judicial system for getting addicted to a product that was marketed directly to them, and portrayed as harmless water vapor shifts the burden away from retailers who sell the products and is simply unfair.”

Further, she said PUP laws are hard to enforce, especially with the influx of e-cigarettes which are easy to conceal and they don’t reduce tobacco use. She added that putting young people in the juvenile system can be counter-productive to their health, both physically and mentally. In addition, she said we don’t need to be adding more people to an already financially strapped and burdened judicial and corrections system.

Sen. Danny Carrol, R-Paducah, said he would like to see increased penalties on retailers, noting that the penalty has to be high enough to make the retailer take it seriously. He suggested any additional revenue gained from this increase be used for tobacco education.