HARRISBURG — The age to buy tobacco and vaping products would move to 21 under legislation that passed the state Senate on Wednesday.
Pennsylvania would become the 19th state to set 21 as the minimum age to buy tobacco products. Almost all of the states neighboring Pennsylvania have already moved to the 21-year minimum age for buying tobacco products.
Smokers have had to be 21 to buy tobacco products in New Jersey since 2017. Delaware went to the 21 minimum age for tobacco in July. New York, Maryland, and Ohio have all passed legislation to do the same, with those laws set to take effect in October.
Increasing the minimum age to buy tobacco products would make it more difficult for teens to get their hands on tobacco and vaping products, said state Sen. Mario Scavello, R-Monroe County.
Younger teens often get tobacco product from peers who are old enough to legally buy the products, he said. “Let’s stop that,” he said.
The measure passed in the Senate by a 43-6 vote. The proposal now goes to the state House. Bills already introduced in the House would also raise the age to buy tobacco. One measure introduced on Sept. 17 would increase the minimum age while exempting those serving in the military or veterans.
State Sen. John DiSanto, R-Dauphin County, spoke against the legislation, saying that if people who are 18 can decide to join the military or get an abortion, they should be able to decide whether or not to smoke or vape.
DiSanto said teens who start smoking do so not because the law makes it easy, but because they’re bowing to peer pressure or rebelling against authority figures who advise against it.
Health advocates welcome the move, particularly at a time when vaping among youth has been described as an epidemic by Surgeon General Jerome Adams, and vaping-related illnesses have sickened hundreds and killed nine people across the country, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In Pennsylvania, there have been five cases confirmed as vaping-related illness, three cases considered “probable” cases of vaping-related illness and another 50 potential cases, said Nate Wardle, a Department of Health spokesman.
“We urge Pennsylvania legislators to pass this bill in order to protect our youth and young adults from the dangers of tobacco use and nicotine addiction,” said Sarah Lawver, Director of Advocacy of the American Lung Association in Pennsylvania. “We know that about 95 percent of smokers try their first cigarette before age 21, and many tobacco users transition from experimenting to regular tobacco use between the ages of 18 and 21.”
While fewer than half of the states in the country have moved to the Tobacco 21 standard, 50 percent of the U.S. population already lives in states that have made the move to the higher age to buy tobacco products, Lawver said.
Lawver said the Lung Association opposes the exemption because the same public health concerns that impact everyone else also impact those in the military.