Federal bill that would raise tobacco-buying age won’t change Holcomb’s plans

Congress is poised to increase the legal age to purchase tobacco from 18 to 21 as part of a larger spending bill, but Gov. Eric Holcomb says that doesn’t change his plans to pursue state legislation.

The Democratic-controlled U.S. House voted Tuesday to pass a $1.4 trillion government-wide spending package that included an unusually large haul of unrelated provisions like raising the nationwide legal age to buy tobacco. The Republican-controlled U.S. Senate is expected to vote on the two-bill package Thursday.

The move to raise the federal minimum smoking and vaping age comes months after a couple of bills, including one from Indiana Sen. Todd Young, were introduced in Congress.

Young’s Tobacco to 21 bill passed a Senate committee on June 26 and is bundled into the bipartisan Lower Health Care Costs Act. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, introduced a bill in May that was similar to Young’s.

Young told reporters on Tuesday he was prepared to act on raising the age before vaping became such a widespread problem, so he’s glad to see this language included in the spending package.

“This will help keep middle and high school students safe,” Young said.

In Indiana, the Republican-controlled General Assembly has failed to pass legislation that would increase the age from 18 to 21 for several years, despite strong support from the Indiana Chamber of Commerce and health advocates.

Indiana Republican leaders, including House Speaker Brian Bosma and Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray, say they are much more open to the idea now. They cite support from military and veteran groups and the significant increase in youth vaping as reasons for their change in position.

And Holcomb has made raising the legal tobacco age one of his 2020 legislative priorities.

He told IBJ on Wednesday that he’s glad Congress is taking action, but it doesn’t change his plans for next year.

“We’re not going to take anything for granted,” Holcomb said. “We’ll move full steam ahead, and if we do extra, then so be it.”

Part of the reason for still needing statewide legislation is that the federal law would only apply to purchasing—not possessing tobacco—and Holcomb wants legislation to cover both. The federal law also would not address increasing the penalties for those selling tobacco and vaping products to under-aged individuals, which is another priority for Holcomb.

“It’s just horrifying to see more and more, younger and younger smokers,” Holcomb said.

The Indiana General Assembly convenes Jan. 6, and the session must end by March 14.

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