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Bid to raise smoking age gaining traction

February 6, 2019 GMT

SPRINGFIELD – Legislation that would raise the minimum age to purchase cigarettes, e-cigarettes, vapes, chewing tobacco and other products in Illinois to 21 made it past its first legislative hurdle Tuesday.

The Senate bill sponsored by Julie Morrison, a Democrat from Deerfield, won the approval of the chamber’s Public Health Committee along party lines, by a vote of 8 to 4.

But the Republican members did not focus on the main issues the tobacco 21 initiative faced in previous legislative sessions. Instead, they took issue with the removal of language from current state law establishing penalties for minors in possession of tobacco.

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This is the fourth time in as many years an effort to curb addiction to nicotine among teenagers was introduced in the General Assembly. Each time, opponents typically argued if 18 was old enough for an Illinoisan to vote, enlist in the military, get married or borrow money from a banking institution, it should be old enough to purchase and smoke a cigarette.

Republican senators, including Steve McClure from Springfield, said eliminating penalties is a “big problem,” especially when testimony in support of the measure suggested many minors who use tobacco products get them from their peers.

“I just don’t know what the rationale is for stripping away penalties, because if there is not going to be any consequences if [they’re] caught with this stuff, then what do [they] care,” he said.

Current law states a minor who is caught with a tobacco product could have to take a “smoker’s education or youth diversion program” with parents. Each additional violation results in increased fees and hours of community service.

Morrison said her bill removes that language in an effort to “refocus the responsibility” onto the retailers who sell the tobacco product, as opposed to placing it on the minors who purchase the product.

Kathy Drea, the American Lung Association’s senior director for advocacy, said the law as it is now is ineffective.

“If there were kids being ticketed in Illinois, we would know about it,” she said. “There is no education program available right now, and when there are things like that, they contact us. In all the years since that bill passed to penalize kids, no one’s ever contacted us and we’ve never heard of a child being penalized for possessing tobacco.”

Bill Fleischli does not agree. He is the executive vice president of the Illinois Petroleum Marketers Association and the state’s Association of Convenience Stores. He testified in opposition to Morrison’s legislation.

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He said data shows smoking rates for people between the ages of 18 and 20 are down to a point where the effects of the proposed bill would be negligible. He added the current law ensuring penalties for a minor possessing tobacco is working, much like regulations for alcohol.

“How can you have a deterrent if there’s no penalty for possession? It doesn’t work,” Fleischli said. “If possession of alcohol is against the law, why not make tobacco the same?”

Springfield Rep. Tim Butler, a Republican, is a chief co-sponsor of the same measure in the House. He said he is going to meet with the other sponsors and advocates to seek a compromise so underage smokers “know there’s some consequences that go along with it.”

Jordan Abudayyeh, spokeswoman for Gov. J.B. Pritzker, said in a written statement Monday that Pritzker “looks forward to reviewing the legislation to raise the smoking age.”

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit news service operated by the Illinois Press Foundation that provides coverage of state government to newspapers throughout Illinois. The mission of Capitol News Illinois is to provide credible and unbiased coverage of state government to the more than 400 daily and weekly newspapers that are members of the Illinois Press Association.