Louisiana House snuffs out bid to raise smoking age to 21

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BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana won’t raise its legal smoking age from 18 to 21.

The House resoundingly snuffed out the proposal from Rep. Frank Hoffmann, a West Monroe Republican, to prohibit people under 21 years old from buying tobacco, alternative nicotine or vapor products. Only 24 members backed the measure Thursday, while 55 opposed it.

Hoffmann, a former smoker who frequently proposes bills aimed at curbing smoking, said he’s worried about people’s health. He said 7,200 people in Louisiana die from smoking-related illnesses each year, citing data from the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

“Raising the sale age of these products will help reduce smoking, save lives and save money for health care,” he said.

Opponents argued the age hike would violate individual freedoms.

“I want y’all to think about the consequences of what y’all are doing today, raising the age to 21 on a product that’s legal,” said House Republican leader Lance Harris, of Alexandria. “Eighteen-year-olds now can get married. They can die for your country. But they can’t make a decision to smoke?”

He said tobacco products come with warning labels that tell people of the health risks, and he questioned whether boosting the age was the first step to adding new restrictions on products like sugary drinks.

“Are Twinkies next? Are you going to raise the age on eating Twinkies to 21?” said Harris, who owns a chain of convenience stores.

Hoffmann also didn’t have the backing of anti-smoking groups for his legislation.

During committee testimony, those organizations said while they supported Hoffmann’s intent, the bill didn’t do enough to curb smoking. They called it too weak on enforcement and penalties for businesses that sell to underage smokers.

“This is just a start,” Hoffmann said.

Rep. Dorothy Sue Hill, a Democrat from Dry Creek, supported the age raise. She described her legislative assistant, who “did smoke for years and years, since she was young,” struggling with a chronic lung disease today.

“She has quit, but it is too late,” Hill said.

To try and win passage, Hoffmann agreed to exemptions for people in the military, law enforcement and first responders — and anyone who turns 18 before Aug. 1. Still, that couldn’t win the votes. Harris said that only made the bill more confusing for retailers.

Rep. Katrina Jackson, a Monroe Democrat who backed the bill, objected to a provision that would allow retailers to charge customers more for tobacco products and pocket that money. She said if lawmakers wanted to mark up cigarette prices, they should increase the tax rate and steer the money to cover government-financed health costs associated with smoking, not give more money to cigarette sellers.

A dozen other states have raised the minimum age for tobacco sales to 21, according to the American Lung Association. Alaska and Alabama set their minimum ages at 19, while most states have set a minimum age of 18. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he plans to introduce legislation to boost the minimum age to 21 nationally.

House Bill 38: www.legis.la.gov

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