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Legislation Raising Smoking Age Requirement Moves Forward

Lit Cigarette
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

According to a study by the Institute of Medicine published in 2015, paid for by the United States Food and Drug Administration, raising the minimum age to purchase tobacco to 21 would reduce the number of lung cancer-related deaths by 50,000. 

The Florida legislature is now trying to raise the minimum age with hopes of seeing those results.

Tuesday, the Florida House Appropriations Committee passed a bill that would raise the age requirement for purchasing tobacco, nicotine products and nicotine dispensing devices from 18 to 21. The hope is to keep tobacco out of the hands of minors.

But stores that sell the products say the bill won’t stop the problem.

Matthew Connor, the owner of seven retail vape shops in Florida is one of them.

"The main reason is the federal government and the media itself has labeled vaping an epidemic. I’m here to tell all of you today there is an epidemic but it’s not on vaping itself. The epidemic is in all the retailers and the adults out there providing these tobacco products to underage individuals," said Connor.

Others who came up said they started smoking at a young age and it wasn’t from the black market but from a convenience store.

"I started smoking when I was 15, and I did not get these cigarettes from my friends or family. I would walk to a convenience store down the street from my high school and buy a pack for $9 dollars. 4 dollars for cigarettes the rest was for the clerk to pocket, this wasn’t uncommon," said Kelsey Orlando.

She's a 22-year-old nursing student from Pinellas County. She says it wasn’t until she turned 18 that she stopped smoking by using a vaping device.

“I tried to stop before I was 18 but I got carded at the vape shop," said Orlando.

And others who testified, like Zach Goodson a vape retail salesman said they used a vaping device to stop also.

"I started smoking at 14. Not once was I worried about any existing T-18 provisions, I knew the guy at my gas station. I got my two packs of Newport’s I got my can of Snus. I didn’t come to that realization that I needed to quit, that I needed to find a healthier alternative until a week after I turned 18. My first time buying a vapor device I was carded, I was questioned a little bit. And then at the end, I was wished Happy Birthday and I got my hands on a healthier alternative," said Goodson.

Matthew Connor, the vape shop owner says the solution is to up the ante on the current laws.

"There is a solution, the solution is we need to enforce the T-18 laws better. And the ones that are out there breaking this law and providing these products to the underage individuals out there, there needs to be a harsher consequence," said Connor.

But Palm Bay Republican Representative Randy Fine says increasing the age to 21 not only will help reduce the number of deaths related to smoking, but also save the state billions of dollars in health care.

“We’re spending more than 4 billion dollars a year of taxpayer money here in Florida to deal with problems that are caused from smoking. My budgets 8 billion dollars. So half as much as we spend on higher education were spending taxpayer money treating smoking," said Fine.

But Connor the vape shop owner believes this will only entice people to go to the black market to find tobacco.

“You’re going to create a black market. There are already 18 and 19 and 20-year-olds out there smoking combustible tobacco products or using vaping devices. You’re going to make them break the law. You’re creating them a criminal of something they bought yesterday with the snap of a finger,” said Connor.

Michael Bowling Jr., says vaping shouldn’t be included. He says the device is mostly used to ween tobacco users off of their nicotine addiction.

“Vapor is not tobacco, so grouping us together it doesn’t make any sense and I’m confused. There needs to be a separation,” said Bowling.

Something else that isn’t tobacco is also in this bill, medical marijuana. The bill would increase the age limit for smoking medical marijuana to 21. Orlando Democratic Representative Carlos Guillermo Smith disagrees with the move.

“I don’t think that these issues need to be intertwined. We’re talking about raising the age of smoking tobacco, which has no health benefit whatsoever, [compared] with medicine, which is smokeable medical cannabis. The American Cancer Society was here and they told us, as well as many other organizations that are experts would say, that there is no direct link between smokeable cannabis and lung cancer,” said Guillermo Smith.

The bill does, however, let one select group of 18 to 20-year-olds smoke. Bill Sponsor Miami Democratic Representative Nicholas Duran explains.

“If you are going to be taking bullets and fighting for the country that if you need a cigarette to cool down. Who am I to tell you while you’re fighting and serving for this country that you can’t use that cigarette or have a cigarette,” said Duran.

Beverly Hills Republican Representative Ralph Massullo questioned if the military allows the same for other drugs that are known to have calming effects.

“Do you know if before they go into battle if military personnel is allowed to have a drink of alcohol or a type of drug that might also calm them down?" asked Massullo.

“I do not believe so and that is a very good point,” answered Duran.

The bill passed the committee but many members said they would like to see changes made before they approve it in the full chamber.

Copyright 2019 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Blaise Gainey is a Multimedia Reporter for WFSU News. Blaise hails from Windermere, Florida. He graduated from The School of Journalism at the Florida A&M University. He formerly worked for The Florida Channel, WTXL-TV, and before graduating interned with WFSU News. He is excited to return to the newsroom. In his spare time he enjoys watching sports, Netflix, outdoor activities and anything involving his daughter.