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Bill would raise smoking age to 21

PINEDALE — State lawmakers overwhelmingly voted Wednesday to advance a bill raising Wyoming’s minimum age to purchase tobacco products to 21 years.

The legislation – which passed the Joint Committee on Revenue by a 10-3 margin – was one of a suite of bills being considered by lawmakers who want to limit minors’ access to tobacco products, including cigarettes, cigars, chewable tobacco and nicotine-infused vapor products, like Juul. The age hike will still need to be approved by the full Legislature next winter, should it make it that far.

Wyoming currently allows people ages 18 and older to purchase tobacco products. The latest version of the legislation raises the stakes on a previous bill considered by the committee at an earlier meeting in Lander, which proposed to raise the purchase age for tobacco products to 19.

Currently, 18 states have raised their tobacco purchase age to 21, though some have exemptions for members of the military. Though instituting an exemption was briefly discussed during Wednesday’s meeting, the committee chose not to pursue one.

The decision came on the heels of testimony from students at local high schools — as well as several lobbyists representing tobacco companies like R.J. Reynolds and Company, Altria and Juul Labs — which spent a large share of their testimony discussing various safeguards they have in place to prevent the underage purchase of their products.

While saying they weren’t against raising taxes on tobacco products, the lobbyists argued better enforcement of existing laws and a higher purchase age could be more effective at deterring young people looking to purchase tobacco products illegally – particularly given that 95 percent of all smokers start before the age of 21, according to national data compiled by the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids.

“This is a youth access issue,” said Dave Picard, a lobbyist representing Altria. “I know this is the revenue committee, but I would argue it is not a taxation issue.”

State data shows that in 2016, the smoking rate for Wyoming adults stood at nearly 19 percent, down by more than 5 percentage points since 2003’s level of 24.6 percent, according to the state Department of Health.