Bipartisan Senate Votes to Raise Tobacco Age to 21

Two Republicans joined all 17 Senate Democrats to make it illegal to sell tobacco to people under 21, creating a uniform standard for adult substances such as alcohol and marijuana. The bill hit a few obstacles in the Senate, but an easier passage is likely in the House, where seven Republicans have co-sponsored the measure.

A bipartisan group of senators voted 19-8 on Thursday to raise the tobacco age to 21, matching the age of purchase and sale for alcohol and marijuana in Oregon.

“I’m a cancer survivor. On bills that have had a reductive effect on cancer, I’ve been consistent,” said Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Pendleton, explaining his decision to break with most of his party. “You might be surprised in rural, eastern Oregon, I had a lot of support from constituents for the bill.”

Hansell said the Umatilla and Morrow county commissions both passed resolutions in favor of raising the smoking age. In the past, the moderate Republican has backed bans on underage teens’ non-medical use of tanning beds and a law against smoking in cars with children.

After Hansell voted yes and assured the bill’s passage, both Sen. Jackie Winters, R-Salem, and Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, switched their votes from nay to yea, increasing the majority.

Winters and Hansell were both under pressure to oppose the bill, but Hansell said that Winters’ was able to negotiate changes to the bill that won their support, including the lowering of civil penalties for tobacco salespeople who sell to those under 21, and the removal of a provision that allowed law enforcement to stop motorists on suspicion of underage smoking.

Winters, who is African-American, had been among a number of legislators worried that using police to enforce a public health law could result in racial profiling.

Hansell said the two Republicans also wouldn’t support the bill unless the Democrats had the votes to pass it themselves. A vote on the bill was delayed twice due to the absence of Sen. Lew Frederick, D-Portland -- a crucial 16th vote without a commitment of support from Johnson. Three Republican senators were absent Thursday.

Other Republicans refused to go along, arguing that young adults should have the same rights and responsibilities of older adults.

“I believe when people turn 18, they should be able to do adult things,” said Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend.

“We allow 16-year-olds to drive,” noted Sen. Alan Olsen, R-Canby. “If their brains are so young and immature and feeble, is that a smart decision?”

“Really, it’s about a lack of trust,” said Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day. “We assume that these adults are not able to make decisions for themselves.”

But Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Beaverton, the chief sponsor of SB 754, said that teenagers are much more likely to get addicted and start a habit that could kill them. By raising the age to the same as alcohol and marijuana, tobacco -- as well as e-cigarettes -- would be much more difficult for high school students to acquire and get hooked.

“Tobacco is one of the leading causes of death, illness and medical costs,” Steiner Hayward said. “Nicotine is more addictive than heroin. This is a public health bill.”

In February, Dr. Brian Druker, the director of OHSU’s Knight Cancer Institute, said that one-third of all cancers are caused by smoking, resulting in 200,000 deaths nationally and 6,000 deaths a year in Oregon. “We know that a critical period of time when young people get addicted to nicotine products is that 18- to 21-year age group,” said Druker.

The vote all but assures that a higher legal age for tobacco will become law, as Senate Bill 754 has several Republican House sponsors, led by Rep. Rich Vial of Wilsonville. The bill will now likely head to the House Health Committee before a vote by the full chamber.

The higher age for tobacco sales and purchases would take effect at the start of next year, although the bill was stripped of any penalties for 18- to 20-year-olds who are merely in possession of tobacco.

Clerks could be fined $50 for an illegal sale to minors, while the penalties for retail managers would be $250 and store owners would get a $500 fine. Steiner Hayward said that these fines are actually lower than the current law for selling tobacco to those under 18.

Chris can be reached at [email protected].