It was business as usual Wednesday when a Senate panel voted to pass legislation to raise the smoking age from 18 to 21 for the second year in a row.
A similar bill passed the Legislature in 2020, but ultimately was vetoed by Gov. Ron DeSantis despite support from Attorney General Ashley Moody and groups including the American Cancer Society and the American Lung Association.
This time around bill sponsor Sen. Travis Hutson has narrowly tailored the legislation more to Gov. Ron Desantis’ liking.
It would appear the bill (SB 1080) is to many senators liking as well. It unanimously passed the Committee on Health Policy Wednesday and previously passed the Committee on Regulated Industries 9-0 earlier in March.
“Stopping kids from smoking is very important,” Democratic Leader Sen. Gary Farmer said. “One study I know we looked at said 200,000 Florida kids who are alive right now and are smoking will die prematurely because of smoking-related illness.”
The federal smoking age has been set at 21 since 2019. By complying with the federal regulations, the state would become eligible for additional health care funding from the federal government.
Under the bill, military members would be exempt from the age restriction.
The bill also splits up laws governing tobacco versus nicotine, because vaping products like e-cigarettes only contain nicotine and do not contain tobacco. Hutson said this change was to satisfy vaping companies.
“We basically copied our tobacco statute and did a nicotine statute as well, so that they will be handled differently as it relates to taxation and regulation,” Hutson said.
“If we want to come back and look at taxation in the future we definitely can,” Hutson said in response to concerns from Farmer.
Youth vaping skyrocketed in recent years but declined in 2020, a drop attributed by health officials to a variety of federal and state policies directed at reducing young people’s use of e-cigarettes.
Hutson said the state’s vape industry supports the measure, which he noted does not include a prohibition on flavored vaping products strenuously opposed by the retailers.
“That’s one of the reasons the Governor vetoed this bill, so working with all parties in trying to get where we think would be something that we can all have an agreement on, shake hands, walk away and get it to the Governor, where he will sign,” he told the panel.
But Susan Harbin, senior government relations director for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, said her organization opposes Hutson’s plan for a variety of reasons.
Harbin said that would put Florida out of compliance with federal law — which raised the age for smoking and vaping to 21 in 2019 — and could jeopardize federal grants the state receives to address substance abuse and treatment.
Harbin also questioned how the state would be able to ensure retailers are complying with the proposal to restrict vaping product sales to people ages 21 and older, since vape shops and other retailers wouldn’t be charged a licensing fee.
“My fear is that it’s just not going to be enforced, either loosely or not at all,” she told the committee.
The American Lung Association, the American Heart Association and other health-care groups also oppose the House and Senate measures.
The bill also preempts all regulations involving the marketing, sale and delivery of tobacco to the state. Hutson said this was done “as a precaution.”
Local governments use ordinances to restrict where items such as cigarettes can be placed, Farmer said during the committee debate on Hutson’s bill.
“Local ordinances mostly deal with things like product placement and trying to make it so this stuff isn’t like right in the kids’ faces when they’re buying a Mountain Dew or something else,” Farmer argued. “I think local governments are often better able to respond more quickly when we have a public health issue like youth smoking and this new product that’s out there. … We could send a good message by passing this bill, but I think there’s some details here that really need to get worked out, clarified and maybe tweaked a little bit.”
Farmer also questioned whether the bill ensured that an “enforcement mechanism” was in place.
But Hutson defended the proposal, adding that, like Farmer, his goal is to reduce smoking and vaping among teenagers.
“I’m pretty confident in the way that we set it up, that everything will be regulated fine, that we’re not going to create any crazy fiscal (impact) or any amount of fees that are needed to actually go in there and make sure that the things are being done the correct way,” he said.
If passed the new smoking age would take effect in October.
The bill now heads to Appropriations, the last of three committees.
House companion legislation (HB 987) has been added to the agenda for its first stop, the Regulatory Reform Subcommittee.
House companion legislation (HB 987) carried by Reps. Jackie Toldeo and Nicholas Duran was also heard Wednesday in the Regulatory Reform Subcommittee.
The bill passed but not before four members voted against it.
Rep. Anna Eskamani took issue with the preemptions, the new regulatory framework separating nicotine regulations from tobacco regulations and penalties for people under 21 who purchase the products.
“I do appreciate the points brought up around young people being the target (of fines) if they are the ones purchasing these products versus the seller. I think in an effort of thinking about criminal legal system reform and looking at policies that work, punishing the young person might not always be the way to actually make them stop the behavior,” Eskamani said.
Rep. Joy Goff-Marcil also said the bill didn’t go far enough to protect young people.
Reps. Toby Overdorf and Amber Mariano both voted no, citing philosophical concerns over the age restriction.
“I would like either everything to be an 18 or a 21,” Overdorf said.
“I think we have done a poor job of making policy that makes a consistent age of, what age are you an adult? And I think that needs to be at 18,” Mariano said.
The House bill now heads to its second of three committee stops, Judiciary Committee.
The News Service of Florida contributed to this post. Republished with permission.