The margin of support for a Senate bill that would raise the state’s smoking age slimmed in its final committee stop Friday.
The Senate Rules Committee passed Sen. Travis Hutson’s bill raising the smoking age from 18 to 21 by an 11 to 5 vote. In two previous Senate committees, the bill passed unanimously.
Sen. Gary Farmer flipped his support by the bill’s third committee stop. At a previous committee meeting, Farmer supported the bill, but said it needed to be “tweaked a little bit.” Farmer took issue with a provision in the bill that preempts local regulations of tobacco advertising and questioned whether the bill ensured that an “enforcement mechanism” was in place.
At Friday’s committee meeting, Sen. Debbie Mayfield asked questions about enforcement as well. Mayfield asked if the Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR) would have the manpower to complete inspections of additional nicotine selling facilities, which would be required to get permits under the bill.
The bill requires dealers of nicotine products, which is what vape products contain, to acquire a nicotine permit if they do not already have a tobacco permit, which is currently required to sell cigarettes. The Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco within DBPR regulates the tobacco permits and would take on the regulation of the nicotine permits under the bill. A tobacco permit costs $50, but the new nicotine permits would be free.
Hutson acknowledged other Senators expressed concern over DBPR absorbing the additional workload without charging a permit fee.
“DBPR said they can absorb that. They currently are inspecting 27,000 stores right now. It’s an increase of about 3%,” Hutson explained.
The separation of the permitting mirrors a major provision in the bill that splits up laws governing tobacco versus nicotine, based on the fact that vaping products like e-cigarettes only contain nicotine and do not contain tobacco. Hutson said the 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.
This was another area Farmer had taken issue with in the bill’s second committee hearing.
“If we want to come back and look at taxation in the future we definitely can,” Hutson said in response to concerns from Farmer.
Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes, who voted against the bill, asked a series of questions Friday indicating he did not agree with making the smoking age later than the age of adulthood, and a provision in the bill for people under 21 to be charged with a second-degree misdemeanor if caught smoking within 1,000 feet of a school.
“So, if they were 20-years-old, and they had acquired a vape, and they were vaping at their personal house in their backyard, law enforcement could then charge them with a second-degree misdemeanor?” Brandes asked.
Republican Sen. Joe Gruters, and Democratic Senators Lauren Book and Perry Thurston also voted against the bill.
This bill’s shaky passage echoes mixed reviews of similar legislation that cleared the Legislature last year, 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 Desantis’ liking.
Hutson said the state’s vape industry supports the measure too, which he noted does not include a prohibition on flavored vaping products strenuously opposed by the retailers.
That omission is one of several reasons the bill is not receiving support from any health care groups this time around. The American Lung Association, the American Heart Association and Tobacco 21 waved in opposition during the hearing.
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.
“This bill is great for the industry, but it’s not great for public health,” Harbin said. “You’ve also carved out a group, military under 21. There’s no carve out in federal law. That right there, on the books, means that we are in violation of federal law.”
Under the bill, military members would be exempt from the age restriction.
The federal smoking age has been set at 21 since 2019. If compliant with federal regulations, the state would become eligible for additional health care funding from the federal government.
House companion legislation (HB 987) is in its last committee stop.