Indiana House Republicans kill bill to raise smoking age to 21

Indiana House Republicans killed a bill on Tuesday that would have increased the legal age for buying tobacco products from 18 to 21.

The measure by Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, who is retiring this year, was supposed to be a capstone achievement after more than 30 years in the General Assembly. Instead, House Speaker Brian Bosma used a procedural maneuver to kill the bill—just one day after the House Public Health Committee approved it on a 9-0 vote.

Indiana consistently ranks poorly among states when it comes to key measures of public health, including smoking rates. Increasing the smoking age could create a powerful disincentive in a state where one in five people smoke, supporters of the bill said.

Citing the financial concerns, Bosma sent House Bill 1380 to the House Ways and Means Committee. The move effectively killed the measure because House bills had to pass out of committee Tuesday to be considered for a floor vote.

House Republicans justified that decision, stating that their own calculations indicate it would cost state government $14 million a year in lost cigarette tax revenue.

But Brown argued that the bill would actually save money in the long run because many smokers depend on the state for health care coverage. His logic: if fewer people smoke, the cost of health care to the state would decrease, as well.

"This one hurts to the core," Brown said. "To get this close and to know there's no rhyme or reason for denying this piece of legislation."

The Republicans' maneuver earned them a rare—and sharp—rebuke from the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, which has made raising the smoking age a top priority.

Chamber President Kevin Brinegar said there was "no valid reason why" the bill shouldn't be brought up for a vote, adding that the organization was "extremely disappointed."

"The true victims, of course, are the individuals who suffer the health consequences due to their smoking addiction," Brinegar said in a written statement. "It's too bad House Republicans abruptly decided they didn't want to vote on this important policy."

Bosma disputed those characterizations of the House GOP's motives. He said the bill could have an immediate financial impact, which meant it needed more vetting.

"What … has been depicted by some as my move to kill this measure is inaccurate," Bosma said. "It was actually following our rules."

Originally, Brown's bill also raised the cigarette tax from 99 cents a pack to $2.99 a pack to help fund smoking-cessation efforts. But the public health committee stripped the tax increase from the bill before voting for it.

Supporters said they would offer the proposal again in 2019, when lawmakers work on the next two-year state budget.

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