Photo courtesy of Julie Bocchino / Flickr
Story by Ashley Perham / MTSU Seigenthaler News Service
Sen. Rosalind Kurita has introduced a bill in the Tennessee legislature to raise the legal smoking and vaping age in Tennessee from 18 to 21.
SB280 would make it a Class C misdemeanor for 18 to 21-year-olds to purchase or possess smoking paraphernalia, including e-cigarettes.
The bill is scheduled to be discussed in the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee on Tuesday. It has also been assigned to the House Public Health Subcomittee.
Tennessee has tried to raise the smoking age in the recent past. In 2018, a bill was introduced to raise the legal smoking age to 19. In 2016, the legislature tried to raise the age to 21.
Kurita said she thinks that the bill has a good chance of getting passed this session because the tobacco companies actually want to pass it.
The Food and Drug Administration has told tobacco companies they need to prove they are not targeting children, Kurita said.
“(Tobacco companies) are going to try to raise the age so they can innocently say, ‘We don’t even sell to children. How can you say this about us?,’” Kurita said. “The reason that now is the time for them to do that is because they have been targeting children with electronic cigarettes.”
Clark Rose Bivens, a lobbyist from JUUL Labs, said that JUUL supports the bill. The company does not want younger children to have access to a product they do not need anyway.
Nicole Crumley, a spokesperson from Tennessee Smoke Free Association, said that her organization does not support the bill.
“We believe that if 18-year-olds can vote, drive and buy firearms, then they should be able to choose a proven alternative to tobacco,” Crumley said.
The Tennessee Smoke Free Association focuses on using electronic cigarettes to reduce the mortality associated with smoking.
Crumley said that teens who are already addicted to cigarettes should have access to an alternative product that could potentially prevent diseases caused by direct consumption of tobacco through cigarettes.
Although the bill targets college-age smokers, Kurita said that high school students will be more affected than college students.
“Our goal is to put up a barrier, and if the kids you’re hanging around with are not young enough to legally buy cigarettes, then we’ve created a barrier,” Kurita said. “21-year-old kids, they don’t hang around with 17-year-olds.”
As of 2018, 9.4 percent of Tennessee high school students smoke, and 11.5 percent of them use cigarettes, according to the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids.
Janecia Gales, a junior journalism major at Middle Tennessee State University has smoked since she was 18. She is 21 and said that the proposed bill would have made her job in a restaurant harder. She said when her job got stressful, she would smoke to calm her nerves.
Kurita, who was a state senator from 1997 to 2008, is a registered nurse and worked at the department of health where she was the policy adviser to the commissioner of health.
“I learned a great deal about the direct effects of tobacco and how many diseases folks get because they smoke,” Kurita said. “Many of those are chronic that take their life. Many of those are diseases that impair their life and in addition to that, cost a lot of money in healthcare dollars that could go to something else because smoking is a preventable disease.”
According to the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, 32.9 percent of Tennessee cancer deaths are attributable to smoking. Smoking directly causes $2.67 billion in annual health care costs in the state.
Kurita has a history of introducing smoking bills. In 2003, she successfully passed a bill that eradicated smoking from the Tennessee capitol building. For her efforts, she was named the American Lung Association’s Legislator of the Year, according to the Memphis Flyer.
In 2007, she successfully co-sponsored a bill that raised the tax on cigarettes. She is still concerned about this issue.
“Science has shown us that if you raise the tax on cigarettes, there are a lot of people out there who won’t pick up the habit, particularly children,” Kurita said.
Kurita has introduced two other bills dealing with tobacco this session.
Kurita amended SB277 this week to ensure that local governments can make decisions about who smokes on local government property.
“If taxpayers funded a park or funded a playground, then those folks who pay the taxes and who elect their own representatives should be able to make the decision whether or not to allow smoking,” Kurita said.
Kurita has also introduced SB301 to prohibit smoking or vaping with a child in a car seat in the car. Kurita said this bill will hopefully call attention to the fact that smoking with children in the car is harmful to their lungs.
“Maybe people just don’t get it. Maybe they don’t see it, but this, if nothing else, will call attention to the fact that you really are damaging your children by doing this,” Kurita said.
Kurita said that she did not know if tobacco reform was the proper term for what she wanted to accomplish.
“What we need to do is have people quit smoking. We have the 11th highest rate of smokers in the United States,” Kurita said.
“The loss in human treasure is immeasurable,” she added.
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