Oregon Set to Raise Age of Tobacco Sales To 21

In a ninth-inning victory for public health advocates, the Tobacco 21 bill resurfaced in the Oregon House, raising the age for the sale of cigarettes, but not the age of possession. The tobacco lobby hired former Sen. Margaret Carter to derail the bill.

The Oregon House of Representatives broke a legislative logjam and passed Senate Bill 754, which raises the legal age for the sale of tobacco and e-cigarettes to 21, on a 39-20 vote.

The Senate immediately passed the bill 19-11, sending it to Gov. Kate Brown. The new law will take effect as soon as the governor signs it. Oregon will join California in having a uniform legal age for recreational marijuana, alcohol and tobacco.

SB 754 passed the Senate with a bipartisan vote in March, but House Democrats yanked the bill from the floor in May after the successful lobbying of former senator-turned tobacco lobbyist Margaret Carter, who argued that the law would lead to increased racial profiling.

The bill had already been amended in the Senate to address concerns about racial profiling, eliminating a provision that would have allowed police to stop a vehicle if someone under 21 was suspected of smoking.

Willamette Week  broke the news of Carter’s newfound affiliation with Phillip Morris Tobacco, which may have helped keep the bill alive.

A compromise amendment keeps the legal age to possess tobacco at 18, but prohibits its sale to those younger than 21, making clear that 18-20 year-olds will not be the ones held responsible for the new law.

Anti-tobacco public health advocates lauded the news: “High school is a prime time for youth to begin a tobacco addiction, but we know that if kids don’t pick up a cigarette during these vulnerable teenage years that most of them will never start smoking,” said Christopher Friend, Oregon government relations director of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.

Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, echoed Friend’s comments: “If you have not begun smoking before you’re 21, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll become addicted,” he said. “Tobacco is more addictive than heroin, and it’s more difficult to treat than heroin.”

Seven Republicans supported SB 754, including chief sponsor Rep. Rich Vial of Wilsonville.

“We are doing the right thing to raised the age of the sale of tobacco to 21 in order to save lives,” Vial said.

Two Democrats opposed the bill: Rep. Jeff Barker, D-Aloha, and Rep. Paul Evans, D-Independence. Evans objected to treating people over 18 as less than adults.

Rep. Cedric Hayden, R-Cottage Grove, said he would vote against the bill for a special reason -- it did not account for how reduced tobacco taxes could lead to a nearly $6 million in decreased funding for transit for seniors and people with disabilities

Rep. Nancy Nathanson, D-Eugene, shared data with The Lund Report noting that the new budget still includes $9 million in tobacco taxes for this transit service out of a total two-year budget of $63 million.

Reach Chris Gray at chris@thelundreport.org.

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