Politics & Government

Kentucky bill would ban sale of tobacco, ‘vaping’ products to anyone younger than 21

The electronic cigarette consists of a battery on the bottom and a bottom-coiled tank on top.
The electronic cigarette consists of a battery on the bottom and a bottom-coiled tank on top. MCT

The sale of tobacco and nicotine vaporizing products would be prohibited to Kentuckians younger than 21, rather than the present age of 18, under a bill headed to the House of Representatives.

The House Health and Welfare Committee voted 10-4 for House Bill 299, sponsored by Rep. David Watkins, D-Henderson.

Watkins, a doctor, acknowledged that his bill faces tough odds in the General Assembly, given Kentucky’s culture as a tobacco-growing state where 26 percent of adults smoke. Hawaii is the only state to restrict tobacco products to adults age 21 and older, although a few local governments also do so, including New York City.

But smoking kills thousands of Kentuckians annually through cancer, heart disease and other ailments, Watkins said, and many smokers pick up the deadly habit as youths. Forcing Kentuckians to wait until they’re a few years older to buy tobacco legally might discourage some from ever starting, he said.

“To me, if it’s the No. 1 health problem that you can identify, then why in the world wouldn’t you want to address it if you want your state to be healthier?” Watkins asked. “I think the day will come when it will move forward. Whether this is the day or not — well ... .”

Rep. Tim Moore, R-Elizabethtown, opposed the bill. Moore said he appreciated its intent, but he would want an exemption for young members of the military and veterans, some of whom “seek solace or even a degree of relief” in smoking.

“I do not want to impose our will on those men and women who have served in harm’s way in combat who are under the age of 21,” Moore said.

In reply, Watkins said he respected veterans and understood that they can get hooked on nicotine during the stress of military service.

“If we want to do them a favor, we’ll help them to stop smoking,” Watkins said.

A telephone poll conducted last year by the nonprofit Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky found that 60 percent of the state’s adults favor raising the legal age to buy tobacco products to 21, said Susan Zepeda, president of the foundation.

Watkins has filed two other anti-smoking measures that await committee hearings. House Bill 247 would increase the tax on cigarettes and other tobacco products and extend it to electronic cigarettes, raising an estimated $109.3 million in new revenue next year. House Bill 322 would require retail outlets to conceal tobacco products until a customer requests them.

In 2015, the House passed a bill that would impose a statewide ban on indoor smoking after five years of efforts by state Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington. The Senate killed the bill, but Westrom has filed it again this session.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, defended use of vaporizers in a transportation hearing on February 11, 2016.

John Cheves: 859-231-3266, @BGPolitics