Bill increases minimum age for buying tobacco products to 21

HARRISBURG — A Senate committee plans to take a second vote on a bill, to increase the minimum age for sale of tobacco products from 18 to 21, after an initial vote Wednesday ended in a tie.

During its consideration of Senate Bill 473, the Judiciary Committee voted 6-6, including proxy votes. The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Mario Scavello, R-Monroe, would set the age limit for sale of both tobacco and vaping products to 21 years old. The tie meant the bill didn’t advance out of committee, and it led to some discussion about having the committee meet off the floor during Wed­nesday’s session to revote the bill.

The committee met again after the session’s end to vote to reconsider the bill. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, said the move allows for a second vote in the future.

Scavello said it could happen when the Senate returns to session the week of April 8.

The tension surrounding Scavello’s bill concerns not the higher age limit, but a provision in the bill creating separate legal definitions for vaping products and tobacco products.

The American Cancer Society said it supports the new age limit in SB473, but wants vaping products included under the same legal definition as tobacco products. It objects to the bill’s provision creating new product categories of “vapor products” and “alternative nicotine products.”

“Big Tobacco has made a concerted effort over the last few years to separate e-cigarettes from the definition of tobacco products in state laws and therefore also exempting e-cigarettes from tobacco control laws that have proven to reduce tobacco use, including smoke-free laws and excise taxes,” wrote Emma Watson, government relations director for the society’s Cancer Action Network.

The society’s position led Democratic senators to vote against the bill as well as Sen. Scott Martin, R-Lancaster. Martin said more work is needed on the bill to clear up legal questions.

The separate definitions are in a Tobacco21 law that passed in New Jersey, said Scavello, claiming the cancer society would rather block the bill than do something to discourage smoking.

The goal of raising the age to 21 is to reduce the degree to which 16- and 17-year-olds are pressured by older friends to start smoking, said Scavello, adding the age change gives them, as well as 19 -and 20-year-olds, more time to make up their mind on smoking.

Pennsylvania taxes tobacco-related products in different ways, such as per pack and by weight, so having one legal definition complicates that tax policy, said Jenn Kocher, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre.

The committee voted unanimously to report out another vaping-related bill vote. Senate Bill 396, sponsored by Baker, seeks to ban the sale of e-cigarette vaping products to minors under age 18, as well as prohibit their use on school grounds. Baker said her bill is similar but not identical to the anti-vaping House Bill 97 passed by the House on Monday.

It was also smooth sailing for the rest of the bills on the committee’s agenda, which dealt with protection for crime victims.

The panel voted unanimously to report out Senate Bill 149, this session’s version of “Marsy’s Law”, a proposed state constitutional amendment for crime victim’s rights; Senate Bill 123 to extend the time from one year to three years before a convicted sexually violent predator can re-apply for parole; Senate Bill 399 to create a bill of rights for survivors of sexual assault; Senate Bill 425 to expand rights of victims to attend trial proceedings; Senate Bill 431 to expand the list of crimes to which the sexual conduct of a victim is inadmissible in court; Senate Bill 479 to give more options for young victims to give out-of-court statements; Senate Bill 469 to give options for individuals who are intellectually disabled for autistic to make out-of-court statements and Senate Bill 337 to create a crime of “sextortion” where threats are made in order to coerce sexual acts, image or videos from a victim.

The state House of Representatives has several of its own, similar, victims’ rights bills positioned for potential final votes.