The Senate Health and Human Resources Committee on Tuesday passed a bill that would raise West Virginia’s legal tobacco-use age from 18 to 21.
The committee passed a substitute version of Senate Bill 348. The bill will next go to the Judiciary for possible consideration.
The legislation would impose a misdemeanor and fines of $300 for the first offense, at least $600 for second offense and at least $1,000 for the third offense of selling or providing tobacco products to people under age 21.
Tobacco products prohibited from sale to those under 21 would include e-cigarettes, a product that an estimated one in five high school students use, the Associated Press reported late last year.
In a statement, a spokesman for Juul, a leading vape products manufacturer, said the company supports “tobacco 21 laws,” like SB 348. The company’s website already requires purchasers to be 21 and over, Ted Kwong, a media relations and communications representative for the company, said in the email.
Speaking about the proposed law Tuesday, state health officer Dr. Cathy Slemp said the Legislature has the historic opportunity to make a strategic investment in the health and economy of West Virginia.
The state loses about 4,300 people a year to tobacco-related illnesses and has some of the highest smoking rates in the country, she said. Slemp said each year smoking costs the state $1 billion in health care costs and $1.23 billion in lost productivity.
“What this [legislation] does is actually allows you to gradually over time reduce the rate of tobacco use in the state,” Slemp said. “So it’s very little cost upfront because our 18- to 21-year-olds actually purchase a small amount of tobacco.”
Slemp said the impact of raising the minimum age for purchasing tobacco to 21 is estimated to be less than a quarter of 1 percent of the state’s tobacco tax revenue.
Raising the legal age limit would also mean fewer 15- to 17-year-olds would have access to tobacco products because many of them get it from their older peers, she said.
Slemp also testified that the U.S. Department of Defense is in favor of increasing the age for tobacco use because it has a plan to eliminate smoking in the military over time.
“So they are actually promoting and encouraging this because they recognize that it has an impact on their readiness and it has an impact on the health and costs for the military long-term,” Slemp said.