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Opinion: Tobacco 21 will address youth use; legislature should pass HB 517

Like many other states, lawmakers in Jefferson City are debating a reverse on the ability for localities to control tobacco ordinances, including enacting local taxes and prohibition. Advocates of the law claim that localities must be in charge of tobacco policies to address youth use of tobacco and vapor products. Unfortunately, allowing localities the permission to ban, regulate, and tax tobacco and vapor products creates a patchwork of confusion in laws as well as invite bad players to profit off of localities’ regulations.

A.J. Moll

Fortunately, there is legislation before Missouri lawmakers that would address youth tobacco and vapor product use, as well as align with federal law, and that’s the provision to raise the age to 21. In the past, our organization, Missouri Smoke Free, has testified against tobacco 21 (T-21) laws, as we represent the thousands of Missourians who have quit smoking by using less harmful alternatives, including e-cigarettes.

However, last year, prior to leaving office, President Donald Trump signed T-21 into federal law, and states must mirror the statute, i.e. not sell products to persons under 21, in order to secure federal funding. Missouri already has a patchwork of state laws in regards to the tobacco purchase age. For example, in St. Louis County, a 19-year-old cannot purchase tobacco or vapor products but can hop into a car and take a 10-minute ride to St. Charles and purchase such products. This is confusing to retailers, and it is time the legislature acts upon it. While we believe in local control, given the federal funding tied to T-21, it is common sense to make this a uniform law in the Show-Me State.

Currently, two bills have been introduced that could serve the legislature’s interest in curbing youth use: SB 124 and HB 517. Sen. Lincoln Hough introduced SB 124, which contains multiple items, including a heavy tax on adult consumers. The legislation would define vapor products as tobacco products, subjecting them to the excise tax on other tobacco products. This is the wrong approach for public health as electronic cigarettes and vapor products are at least 95 percent safer than smoking and shouldn’t be subject to an excise tax; it’s nonsensical to tax folks to quit smoking.

In the House, Rep. Dan Shaul has introduced HB 517. This bill would raise the age of tobacco and vapor products to 21 and would rectify the current patchwork, local tobacco control laws by giving the state authority over tobacco and vapor product regulations. This is a good start to addressing youth use of age-restricted products, and it does not unfairly punish adult users of tobacco harm reduction products.

To address localities’ concerns, Missouri lawmakers ought to revisit state funding toward tobacco control programs and offer robust funding to the communities by using existing tobacco monies. In 2019, Missouri collected an estimated $72.3 million in cigarette taxes and $134.2 million in tobacco settlement payments. In the same year, the Show-Me State allocated only $500,000 toward tobacco control programs — including youth prevention and cessation services. This is less than 1 percent of tobacco monies received and amounts to $0.54 per-smoker and $0.36 per resident 18 years and younger.

Missouri Smoke Free recognizes the importance of addressing youth tobacco and vapor product use, and we support sensible solutions that can reduce youth use while maintaining adult access to tobacco harm reduction products. HB 517 a good clean bill that we favor. Again, because there is federal funding at stake, HB 517 should be referred to committee and come before a full vote of the House. We call on Speaker Rob Vescovo to take action now and assign HB 517 to committee.