Indiana lawmakers agree on tougher tobacco sales penalties

February 26, 2020 GMT

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana lawmakers are poised to double the fines stores could face for selling smoking or vaping products to anyone younger than 21 years old.

Legislators advanced an agreement Wednesday reached by Senate and House negotiators on a bill supported by health advocates and business leaders. The proposal aims to help reduce Indiana’s high smoking rates by making it more difficult for youths to obtain tobacco-related items such as cigarettes or e-cigarette liquids.

The additional penalties are part of a bill increasing Indiana’s minimum age for smoking and vaping from 18 to 21 to conform with a new federal law. But the Republican-sponsored proposal doesn’t include any additional taxes on cigarettes or regulations on vaping liquids as sought by health advocates.

The agreement would boost the maximum fine against a retailer for a first violation from $200 to $400. The penalties would increase until a third violation within a year, which would carry a maximum $2,000 fine.

Those levels are compromises from an earlier Senate version that tripled the fines for violations within a six-month period and a House-backed bill that allowed a three-year loss of a store’s tobacco sales certificate after being caught multiple times making improper sales.

Ed Charbonneau, a Valparaiso Republican who is chairman of the Senate’s health committee, said doubling the fines was a sensible step.

“That seems to me to be very reasonable because we haven’t looked back and done anything with the fines for somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 or 11 years,” Charbonneau said.

Indiana State Medical Association President Lisa Hatcher, a family physician from Columbia City, cited studies finding more than 90% of adult smokers started the habit as teenagers and that only about one-quarter of minors are refused sales at Indiana tobacco retailers.

“It is important that we make these penalties stiff and that we enforce them,” Hatcher told the Senate committee.

The House and Senate must still give final approval to the agreement before the legislative session ends in a couple weeks to send it to Gov. Eric Holcomb, who has endorsed tougher retailer penalties.

The Tobacco Free Indiana coalition, which includes the American Heart Association and numerous other groups, has also pushed for raising the state’s cigarette tax as a way of fighting its 21.8% smoking rate among adults that was the 7th highest in the country for 2017, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But those efforts have failed in recent years and legislative leaders said proposals for a cigarette tax increase and for imposing a state tax on vaping liquids won’t be taken up until 2021 when a new two-year state budget is written.

Dr. Richard Feldman, a former state health commissioner, said he was disheartened that lawmakers weren’t cracking down on high-nicotine vaping pods that have been sold in fruit and dessert flavors, including mango, mint and creme. He said those flavorings “entice children into initiation and continued use of nicotine.”