- Associated Press - Monday, February 13, 2017

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - A bill that would raise Nebraska’s legal smoking age from 18 to 21 won support from medical groups at a legislative committee hearing Monday, but opponents say it would strip rights from young people who are considered responsible enough to vote and serve in the military.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Merv Riepe of Omaha, would apply to smoking, chewing tobacco and using alternative nicotine products such as e-cigarettes. If it becomes law, Nebraska would join California and Hawaii as the only states to ban smoking until age 21.

Riepe said the measure would help “disrupt the chain of youth tobacco addiction” by limiting the number of 18 to 20-year-olds who legally use tobacco or nicotine products and preventing younger teens from getting cigarettes through their older friends.

“Raising the drinking age to 21 is a prime example of the deterring effect raising the minimum age can have on society,” he said.

About two-thirds of people who smoke at least one cigarette a day started in their teens, said Andy Hale, vice president of advocacy for the Nebraska Hospital Association. Smoking has decreased steadily in the past decade, but it’s still a leading cause of preventable death in the U.S., he said.

“That’s more deaths caused by tobacco than by HIV, illegal drug use, alcohol use, suicide and motor vehicle accidents” combined, Hale said.

The bill also applies to e-cigarettes, which Nebraska banned for minors in 2014. Most e-cigarettes are designed to look like traditional filtered cigarettes, and they contain a solution of often-flavored nicotine that’s vaporized by a heating element. They’re often touted as safer alternatives to cigarettes because they don’t contain tar or other additives.

Many e-cigarettes are sold with fruity or sweet flavors, such as grape, cotton candy or Captain Crunch cereal, which specifically target younger students, said Julia McKarble of the Nebraska chapter of the American Lung Association.

She said 22 percent of high school students reported using e-cigarettes, while 13 percent reported smoking traditional cigarettes.

“Tobacco at any age is a killer, and if we can stop the access of our youth, we’re setting ourselves up for success,” McKarble said.

But proponents of e-cigarettes say they can help people quit smoking. Sam Salaymeh, who owns a chain of Midwest vape shops, told the committee he smoked two packs a day after he came back from Iraq, and he wasn’t able to quit until he took up vaping.

He said he uses fruity flavors because they taste better than tobacco-flavored solutions, not to target children.

Sens. Carol Blood, of Bellevue, and Burke Harr, of Omaha, questioned how the state could say 18-year-olds were old enough to vote and serve in the military but too young to smoke.

“How can you help me justify the fact that we make 18-year-olds register for draft, can make them go to war, but can’t let them make the adult decision to smoke?” Blood asked Riepe.

Increasing the smoking age sets a “slippery slope” for young adult rights, said Gregory Conley of the American Vaping Association. It also could make existing 18 to 20-year-old smokers criminals, something he said he experienced as a 19-year-old when New Jersey raised its smoking age to 19 in 2006. Conley’s friends asked him to buy them cigarettes, he said.

“I don’t think it respects the rights of 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds, especially those who are already smokers and vapers,” he said. “They deserve rights too.”


Follow Julia Shumway on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JMShumway

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