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Senate Tees Up ‘T21’ Smoking Age Bill

pack of cigarettes
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

The Florida Senate is poised to vote on a measure that would raise the smoking age from 18 to 21, after making changes Monday to bring the proposal closer to the House’s version.

The Senate’s proposal had included an exemption for cigars, an apparent attempt to win over votes by Senate Democrats, whose leader, Audrey Gibson, represents a district where Jacksonville-based Swisher International, known for its “Swisher Sweets” cigars, is based.

House Speaker José Oliva, whose fortune is based on a family cigar enterprise, had objected to the exemption, which the Senate stripped from the bill (SB 1618) on Monday. The Senate also added a provision banning local governments from passing ordinances dealing with the minimum age to purchase tobacco products, a feature of the House bill (HB 7119).

Both the House and Senate versions also would raise the age to use vape products from 18 to 21. When asked about the changes during Monday’s Senate floor session, bill sponsor David Simmons said he was “attempting to keep this alive” before the legislative session ends Friday.

Florida is one of several states considering legislation supporting an issue known as “Tobacco 21,” or T21, that is supported by e-cigarette giant, JUUL Labs. JUUL’s exponential growth --- its market share tripled in just one year --- is linked closely to the skyrocketing increase in youngsters’ e-cigarette use. JUUL, owned by Altria, the parent company of cigarette maker Philip Morris USA, is pushing Tobacco 21, in part in an attempt to keep federal regulators at bay.

The Florida proposal has pitted mom-and-pop vape shops and some convenience stores against Big Tobacco in what has become a vicious battle, according to Simmons.

“I have likened this to nailing Jell-O to the wall and I’ve also likened it to staking greasy BBs,” Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, told senators when asked about the impetus for the changes. “This one has been a significant challenge because of the visceral and sometimes vitriolic response that I get and have gotten from various stakeholders. There are a lot of people who want all or nothing,” he said.

The House proposal also would increase the age to smoke medical marijuana from 18 to 21. The legislation could be in trouble, Simmons indicated. “Let’s put it this way, if it isn’t done today, I doubt that it will be done this year,” he said.