A group of North Carolina House legislators, hoping to make it harder for teens to get addicted to nicotine, wants to raise the minimum age for buying cigarettes and vaping products to 21.
House Bill 435, which has bipartisan support, would make it illegal for people under 21 in North Carolina to buy or receive tobacco products, tobacco-derived products, vapor products and cigarette wrapping papers unless they’re active-duty military members.
Raising the age in North Carolina may prove harder than in states without deep connections to the golden-leafed crop, but bill sponsor Rep. Gregory Murphy, a Greenville Republican, said he has good support for the measure.
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“North Carolina has a very tobacco rich history, and it’s helped build the state, but we now know the risks,” he said. “Nicotine is one of the most addictive substances on the earth, and kids get addicted to nicotine with vaping.”
Murphy, a urologic surgeon, said he has seen first-hand how smoking can cause a range of illnesses and damage the health of the state’s residents.
“If I was not helping lead the charge to have a healthier life for the citizens of North Carolina, I would not be doing my job,” he said.
The bill would impose a fine of $25 on a store if it doesn’t post a sign stating the age limit near the sales counter, and a $75 fine for each subsequent offense. It also would charge people who sell tobacco with a class 2 misdemeanor if they don’t ask for proof of age.
Federal statistics show that nearly nine of 10 cigarette smokers first tried smoking by age 18. Raising the age could keep people who haven’t started by 21 from ever picking up the habit, he said.
The bill’s primary sponsors are Republicans Bert Jones of Reidsville, Donny Lambeth of Winston Salem, Holly Grange of Wilmington and Kevin Corbin, who represents the state’s four most western counties. Since it was filed Wednesday, Wake Republican Linda Hunt Williams and Democrats Susan C. Fisher of Asheville, Elmer Floyd of Fayetteville and Verla Insko of Chapel Hill have added their support.
If approved, the bill includes a step-up period where the minimum age would increase gradually over the next three years, so anyone who is 18 or older on Jan. 1, 2018, would still be able to buy tobacco.
The law excludes active-duty members of the armed forces, because the military is a federal institution that is already working on reducing tobacco use in its ranks, Murphy said.
“We’re going to let them do their job, and we’re going to do our state job,” he said.
The bill comes on the heels of HB 276, filed this month, which would allocate $17 million each year for a new “tobacco use prevention fund” that would include school programs and other educational efforts about the health hazards of e-cigarettes and traditional tobacco products.
A similar ad campaign credited with cutting high school cigarette-smoking rates from 31.6 percent in 1999 to 15.5 percent in 2011 was defunded in 2012.
The high-school cigarette-smoking rate has continued to fall, to 9.3 percent in 2015. But e-cigarettes have been growing in popularity among high school students, from 1.7 percent of high school students using them in 2011 to 16.8 percent in 2015.
If HB 276 passes, funding would go to tobacco use prevention programs run by churches, schools, public health departments and nonprofit groups. Some of it would be used to study the effectiveness of the state’s programs.